Remember the Gold Leaf man? Suavely strolling through museum exhibits in his fine suit and riding thoroughbreds in his jodhpurs, as if a cigarette bestowed the gift of dandyism. Unfortunately for Mr. Dandy Cigarette-Smoking Man, cigarette ads in Pakistan went the way of the British and were kicked off the airwaves in 2003.  I hear he’s currently looking for a job as Bilawal Zardari’s butler.

But a ‘new tobacco’ is on the block. It’s called junk food and its suffusing children’s programming like the second-hand smoke of four-pack-a-dayers in a small room.  According to a consumer protection NGO, 50 to 70 per cent of ads on channels for children in Pakistan are about food – candies, toffees, jellies, ready-made cakes, cookies, noodles, juices and flavoured milk. It’s a cocktail high on salt, sugar, fats, artificial flavours, colours and preservatives.

You could argue that it’s the parents' job to give their children the healthier option. I’ve seen a six-year-old sucking coke out of a milk bottle and a toddler wailing for his Fanta-filled sippy cup, and I’ve been properly horrified each time. In fact, 73 per cent of Pakistani children perceive soft drinks to be healthy for frequent consumption. But as every parent knows all too well to their dismay, beyond a certain point, the media, peers and society can easily override years of training. What do you do when all the kids are drinking soft drinks at a birthday party and you insist your little angel has the milk? That’s just uncool.

My daughter was not allowed to watch television until she turned two. Her intake of soft drinks is limited to the occasional Fanta or Seven-Up as a treat perhaps twice a month. Even then, if she insists on market-bought drinks, my husband and I prefer to give her the flavoured milk over the fizzy drink. I did not allow her chocolates or candies either until she turned two, and lollipops were proscribed until she was three. Even now, she watches about two hours of television a day, more on weekends and when she’s sick.

But like jihadi outfits that refuse to go away, junk food has better propaganda than evil, draconian mommy. The irresistible tug of advertising with its annoyingly catchy jingles, elaborate story lines lifted from animated movies and cute cartoon characters gets them like years of a controlling diet never be able to. It’s Willy Wonka’s world of chocolate rivers and never-ending gobstoppers, a hallucinogenic world of rainbow colours and sugar highs.

Take an ad for flavoured milk: plain white milk morphs into a lumbering monster which is eventually conquered by sipping packaged milk full of artificial flavours and sugar. Another shows that sucking lollipops is a substitute for thumb-sucking – candy triumphs over queer oral fixation! This particular one should be banned on more than one ground.

Only there is no regulation in Pakistan. Guidelines for advertising tend to look at vulgarity rather than nutritional claims or benefits. Studies have shown a correlation between increased consumption of junk food and media messages on television. The World Health Organisation (WHO) – which has collaborated with the Pakistani government on regulating tobacco – has “issued white papers in several … countries documenting the relationship between food advertising and childhood obesity.” Several EU countries have as a result placed restrictions on food advertising. The answer is not regulation, but self-regulation, as several advertising associations and food companies have done in the US, Canada and the UK. Pakistan needs to have the equivalent of an Advertising Standards Authority, an international watchdog body, whose functions include the monitoring of ethical advertising. Junk food advertising – with its dubious nutritional claims and free toys – needs to be curtailed. Bad food habits lead to obesity, certain forms of diabetes, malnutrition and rotting teeth.

Meanwhile, what can parents do? They could write to consumer rights groups like The Network or WHO in Pakistan so they can campaign about this issue. They can control what their children watch and eat. They can contact their children’s schools and volunteer time for a media literacy workshop so that children become responsible and informed consumers. There’s a great website that provides games and ready-made tools for kids, parents and teachers on media literacy.

Consumer rights groups, elected representatives and parents groups have managed to make a difference in other countries, why not in Pakistan?

ambershamsi80x80
Amber Rahim Shamsi is a mother, journalist, and foodie whose experiments in the kitchen haven’t always turned out quite right. But that hasn't stopped her from trying, to the dismay of her family.

The following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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