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Marketing to children, salt reduction and reformulation top WHO regulatory priorities for food in Europe

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 21-Sep-2012

Regulating to mitigate lifestyle risks – including overconsumption of unhealthy food – can produce good results over a relatively short period of time at a reasonable cost, according to World Health Organization programme manager Joao Breda.

Delivering a presentation via video at a conference at the HEC in Paris on Thursday, Breda – who manages the nutrition, physical activity and obesity programme at the WHO’s regional office for Europe – said that in Europe, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) account for more than 80% of disease, while worldwide, WHO figures suggest that 63% of deaths are linked to NCDs, including unhealthy diets, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and lack of physical activity.

“You don’t need so many years to get good results around mortality and morbidity,” Breda said. “This is essentially true for tobacco but also for nutrition, you can get good results in a short period of time and at a reasonable cost.”

He said that the organisation considers engagement with all stakeholders to be critical before any regulation is put forward, including with the food industry, and there are several areas relating to food firmly in the WHO’s sights.

“We believe we have identified the areas where we need to take action in the coming years,” he said. “…These areas are namely, marketing of food to children, the reduction of salt consumption, which could have a major effect on the reduction of heart disease… and reformulation.”

The conference, “Regulating Lifestyle Risks in Europe”, aims to draw parallels between the regulation of health risks from excessive consumption of unhealthy foods and other behaviours that impact health, although it was noted there are clear differences between food as a necessity for life; tobacco, for which it is considered that there is no healthy level of consumption; and alcohol, which is considered a risk factor for NCDs at higher than moderate consumption levels.

Speakers were not only from the pro-regulation camp, however, and several advocated caution in the public health sphere, as regulation may often be driven by deeply held beliefs and a sense of what is right, rather than by a strong scientific consensus.

“There is limited scope for criticism in the area,” said Adam Burgess, reader in social risk research at the University of Kent. “The mantra for policy making is that it must be evidence based.”

FoodNavigator will bring you further coverage of the event, which concludes on Friday, in the coming days.

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