Regulating the Digital Obesogenic Ecosystem

Kathryn C. Montgomery and Jeff Chester

Regulating the Global Online Junk Food Marketing System

The UK Experience


In a March 2023 report, the World Obesity Federation issued a dire prognosis and warning: “The majority of the global population (51%, or over 4 billion people) will be living with either overweight or obesity by 2035 if current trends prevail,” based on the latest figures. The greatest and most rapid increase is expected among young people between the ages of 5 and 19.  Yet, despite these alarming trends, food and beverage companies around the world continue to push ads for junk food, sugar-sweetened sodas, and other harmful products to young people, using increasingly sophisticated and intrusive digital marketing campaigns, such as this one in Indonesia by McDonald’s. The Center for Digital Democracy’s 2021 report, Big Food, Big Tech and the Global Childhood Obesity Pandemic, described the far-reaching, global, digital media and marketing system that now targets children and teens across social media, gaming platforms, and mobile devices, and called for international advocacy efforts to address this threat.

The World Health Organization and other international health bodies have urged nations to adopt strong policies to curb digital food marketing. Governments around the world have responded with a host of new restrictions in countries such as Chile, Mexico, Argentina, and Norway.  Amid this growing momentum for regulation, the UK stands out as the country where some of the most comprehensive efforts have been underway for more than two decades to develop food marketing safeguards. These include a recently-passed ban on online junk food advertising, which has triggered a powerful backlash from the industry, along with attempts to derail its implementation. CDD’s latest report – Regulating the Obesogenic Ecosystem: Lessons from the 20-year Effort to Pass the United Kingdom’s Online Ban on Unhealthy Food and Beverage Advertising – offers a detailed case study of this campaign, chronicling the interplay among health advocates, researchers, government policymakers, and corporate lobbyists, and offering insights for other organizations around the world that are seeking to rein in the powerful global food/tech marketing complex.