WHO board to discuss guidelines on marketing to kids

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Marketing, Nutrition

The World Health Organization will this month discuss recommendations for governments to protect children from marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products that pay particular attention to international marketing.

The 12 recommendations were drawn up after consultation with stakeholders, including non-governmental organisations, the advertising sector, and the food and beverage industry, in fulfilment of a broader resolution for a global strategy to prevent and control non-communicable diseases. They are on the agenda for discussion at the WHO’s 126th executive board meeting in Geneva, which starts on 16th January.

The UN agency intends its recommendations to guide member states in efforts to design or strengthen policies on food marketing, to reduce the impact on children of messages about foods high in saturated and trans fats, free sugars and salt.

Crucially, policies currently in place in WHO member states vary widely in their objectives, content, approach, monitoring, and evaluation practices.

During the consultation process, countries reported concern over cross-border marketing of unhealthy foods to children. “Many countries, including those with restrictions in place, are exposed to food marketing in their country from beyond their borders, and the member states indicated that the global nature of many marketing practices needs to be addressed,”​ the WHO’s secretariat wrote in the report circulated prior to the meeting.

Sue Davis, chief policy advisor at UK consumer organisation Which? told Foodnavigator.com that while some major food companies have pledged to market less healthy foods more responsibly, action tends to be patchy.

“They do not necessarily apply the same approach to all markets, so we think it is important to have recommendations by WHO to act as an international benchmark”.

Consumers International, the sister organisation of Which?, has been involved in the consultation process that led to the guidelines.

Comprehensive or step-wise?

The guidelines encourage governments to consider whether they prefer a comprehensive approach to curbing marketing. This means restricting all marketing to children of foods with high saturated and trans fats, free sugars or salt, which would fully eliminate both the power (marketing techniques) and the exposure (where they are aired) of messages.

“A comprehensive approach has the highest potential to achieve the desired approach,”​ wrote the secretariat.

However it sets out two ‘stepwise’ approaches too – that is, reducing the exposure or the power independently.

Davis said it is “generally good” ​that marketing to kids is on the agenda, and especially that they tackle marketing in contexts where children are a captive audience, such as schools.

But she added: “it is important to have more detail for them to be meaningful”.

For instance, Davis would like more clarification on the types of food the guidelines relate to, as some countries – and indeed food companies too – may have their own schemes for profiling nutritional value.

The guidelines do not specify the age of children to which they relate. Some companies only restrict their marketing of less healthy foods for children of younger ages. Specifics on the kinds of marketing are also excluded; while there tends to be a lot of focus on television advertisements, the internet, new and social media, and sponsorship are also approaches popular with marketers.

Following the executive board meeting, the guidelines will be passed on for discussion at the World Health Assembly in May.

The WHO report containing the guideline is available here​ .

Related topics: Policy

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