Is it ethical to advertise unhealthy foods to children?

Proc Nutr Soc. 2023 Sep;82(3):234-240. doi: 10.1017/S0029665123000010. Epub 2023 Jan 6.


The marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages (hereafter: food) high in fats, salt and/or sugar (HFSS) has been strongly implicated in the rising levels of childhood obesity worldwide. Multiple ethical concerns arise from the practice of exposing children to such marketing and efforts to monitor and restrict it through regulatory policies. There is considerable evidence that exposure to powerful food marketing messages affects children's food behaviours in ways that are detrimental to good dietary health. Children are particularly vulnerable to being exploited and deceived by food marketing messages based on their cognitive and developmental immaturity. HFSS food marketing also affects numerous child rights enshrined within the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (of which the UK is a signatory) including the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health. The debate has become somewhat polarised between the public health community's evidence-based assertion that all marketing is inherently exploitative and the rebuttal from food and marketing industry stakeholders that provided the marketing is 'accurate and truthful' and there is no ethical need to regulate. This polarisation is reflected in the complexity of policymaking decisions regarding the rationale for mandatory government-led policies or industry self-regulation. There are also ethical considerations inherent in the monitoring of children's food marketing exposure, particularly in the digital sphere, by researchers for the purposes of informing policy design, scope and implementation. This review paper will explore the latest evidence on these issues and consider the implications for public health research, policy, and practice.

Keywords: Advertising; Children; Ethics; Food; Health.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Beverages
  • Child
  • Diet
  • Food
  • Food Industry
  • Humans
  • Marketing
  • Pediatric Obesity* / etiology
  • Pediatric Obesity* / prevention & control
  • Television