Addressing the Implications of Sport Sponsorship by Food Businesses

Image sourced from Flickr

By Dr. Nikhil Gokani, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

It is estimated that there are 1.9 billion adults and 379 million children living with overweight or obesity globally. This includes about 63% of the UK adult population and a third of children in England aged 2–15 years.

Obesity imposes a substantial burden on health services, societies and sustainable development. It is a significant risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders and some cancers.

Obesity in childhood is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. Children with obesity also experience increased breathing difficulties, risk of fractures, hypertension, dental caries and insulin resistance with reduced levels of mental wellbeing. Moreover, there are large socio-economic, gender and ethnic inequalities in the prevalence of obesity.

We live in an obesogenic environment that encourages weight gain. A population-wide energy imbalance has resulted from systemic changes in the type, availability, affordability and marketing of food in recent decades together with a decline in physical activity. Increased energy intake due to greater consumption of energy-dense food or non-alcoholic beverages high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt (‘HFSS food’) is the main explanation for population weight gain.

The principal drivers underlying this consumption are the commercial determinants of health – defined as the strategies and approaches used by the private sector to promote products and choices that are detrimental to health – in the food chain, particularly the marketing of HFSS food. With children in particular, a substantial body of evidence shows that HFSS food advertising via broadcast and digital media negatively affects children’s food attitudes, preferences and consumption.

Given the core involvement of business actors, regulating their activities is an important part of a multi-faceted approach to reducing obesity. Nevertheless, regulation has been fiercely contested by these powerful economic operators. In the UK, some rules do regulate certain forms of HFSS food marketing (such as television and online advertising to children) and the government is considering strengthening these.

However, although sports sponsorship by HFSS food businesses (defined as a business preparing, cooking, storing, handling, distributing, supplying or selling food and whose products are primarily HFSS) is increasingly recognised as linked to HFSS food consumption, it has received little attention. This is all the more concerning in light of the recent proliferation of HFSS food businesses and HFSS products partnering with professional and amateur sports organisations. Prominent examples in the UK include McDonald’s sponsoring all national Football Associations, Coca-Cola sponsoring the Premier League, and KP Snacks sponsoring England and Wales Cricket Board’s new ‘The Hundred’ competition.

As these examples illustrate, sponsorship relationships between sporting organisations and food brands largely promote the consumption of HFSS products and associate these with elite sport. This close interrelationship between HFSS food sponsorship and sports undermines official nutrition advice and raises important questions regarding the impact on preferences and purchase requests of HFSS food, dietary behaviour and public health.

Against this background, in May 2021, a workshop was hosted to focus on the relationship between health, nutrition and the sponsorship of sport and related marketing by HFSS food businesses and to consider the implications for obesity prevention strategies in the UK and beyond.

This workshop brought together a new and diverse group of experts and participants who are engaged with the issue of sports sponsorship and dietary health. Its aims included: to stimulate collaboration; identify research gaps through an interdisciplinary lens; generate a novel research agenda; and raise the awareness and profile of the issue.

The workshop was organised by principal investigator Dr. Emma Boyland (University of Liverpool) and co-principal investigator Dr. Nikhil Gokani (University of Essex) with Professor Amandine Garde (University of Liverpool) and Dr. Matthew Philpott (Healthy Stadia). The organisers are grateful for funding from the UK Nutrition Research Partnership.

In an article published this month, “UK Nutrition Research Partnership ‘Hot Topic’ workshop report: A ‘game changer’ for dietary health – addressing the implications of sport sponsorship by food businesses through an innovative interdisciplinary collaboration” by Nikhil Gokani et al., in the Nutrition Bulletin, the organisers summarise the structure, participants and discussions from the workshop; the existing evidence base on sports sponsorship by HFSS food businesses; and the future research and policy opportunities they plan to pursue.

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