Singapore Addresses Eating Habits

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As Childhood Obesity News has been discussing, the city-state of Singapore is quite serious about lowering its childhood obesity rate, and is pursuing that goal with a two-pronged strategy. One prong is more physical fitness for all citizens — regardless of their age or what kind of shape they’re already in — because exercise can do nothing but good, and because team sports foster a spirit of cooperation and cohesiveness that can only be beneficial for society.

The other path by which the goal is being approached is a general improvement of everyone’s eating habits. The authorities recognize that the mind plays a large role in what the body eats, and the minds of children are being influenced in ways that are not healthy. Studies show a correlation between video games and obesity. Singapore is well known as one of the largest markets for consumer electronics, and speaking of consumption, videogaming has been shown to go hand-in-hand with increased junk-food intake. Once this realization sank in, the prevalence of cybergaming and television rose to the top of the worry list.

In August, Singapore reported its childhood obesity rate as 11% and stepped up its efforts to follow World Health Assembly recommendations to do something about the way foods and beverages are advertised to children. The government found that:

…children, especially the younger ones, do not comprehend the persuasive intent of advertising. They generally lack the capability to effectively evaluate commercial claims and appeals, and therefore tend to accept the information conveyed in advertising as truthful, accurate and unbiased. They are thus more susceptible to commercial persuasion.

Singapore, unlike some other countries, has very little faith in or regard for the concept of industry self-regulation. Officials are aware that industries do an inadequate job of setting limits for themselves and that someone else must do it for them. That someone is the government, which has a Code of Advertising Practice. This code gives guidelines for the types of ads that can be beamed at kids, but currently only one clause directly addresses the food and beverage industry:

Advertisements should not actively encourage children to eat excessively throughout the day or to replace main meals with confectionery or snack foods.

Studies of how children in Singapore spend their discretionary time indicate that they do a lot of television watching and reading. Other studies, of advertising expenditures, indicate that food and beverage manufacturers spend about four-fifths of their ad dollars on television and print media. So the current thinking about obesity is that the best places to start tackling it are TV ads and print media that are popular with children. The government puts it this way:

Consultations have been conducted with stakeholders from the public/regulatory sector [e.g., Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), Media Development Authority (MDA), Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS)], private sector (e.g. food industry, media owners and advertising agencies) and people sector (e.g. focus group discussions with parents). The general agreement is that this is an important initiative and more robust standards for food advertising to children should be developed.

The regulators will start with the foods and beverages considered to be the biggest childhood-obesity villains — substances that are high in fat, sugar or salt. They will focus on free TV programming most likely to be watched by children, paid TV outlets that provide dedicated children’s channels, and print media primarily seen by children.

By the way, one might assume that the harmful effects of print media are negligible because kids don’t read anymore. One would be mistaken, at least where Singapore is concerned. A quick look at just one source indicates that reading is a very big deal on the island. The “Born to Read, Read to Bond” program includes a CD that reads stories to a child still in the womb, while at the same time teaching parents how to read stories in case that is not part of their skill set. The “10,000 Fathers” program encourages dads to take part in literacy development. There is a “KidsREAD” program and a “Read and Reap” program, and those are just from the public libraries’ website. No doubt other agencies and institutions offer many more.

We hope you have enjoyed this in-depth look at what one very determined country has been doing and plans to do about childhood obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Public Consultation on the Proposed Strengthening of Food Advertising Guidelines for Children,” hpb.gov.sg, 08/21/13
Source: “Reading Campaigns – Children,” PL.sg
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