WHO urges stricter rules on food marketing to children


- Last updated on GMT

Most children and adolescents watch more than two hours of TV a day
Most children and adolescents watch more than two hours of TV a day

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The food industry is ‘exploiting children’ in its marketing of unhealthy food, according to a new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which calls for stricter marketing controls, particularly in light of new technologies like smart phone apps and social media.

All 53 countries in the European region have implemented restrictions on marketing to children, but only six European countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, France and Slovenia – have regulatory approaches that address other promotion of food and drink to children, either through legislation, self-regulation or co-regulation.

In particular, the WHO report​ highlights the food and drink industry’s use of advergames, viral marketing, downloadable apps, branded computer games, sponsorship and online advertising to target children. 

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Millions of children across the European Region are subjected to unacceptable marketing practices. Policy simply must catch up and address the reality of an obese childhood in the 21st century. Children are surrounded by adverts urging them to consume foods high in fat, sugar and salt, even when they are in places where they should be protected, such as schools and sports facilities.”

Television remains the number one form of advertising, with most children watching more than two hours a day, it says, and TV watching has been linked to obesity risk.

"Recent data suggest that children become obese not just because they watch TV, instead of being active, but also because they are exposed to advertising and other marketing tactics,​" the WHO said. "Most products featured are high in fat, sugar or salt."

The marketing of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) has been recognised as a significant risk factor for obesity and diet-related diseases, and the WHO points to research suggesting that the more brands children recognise by the age of four, the more likely they are to be overweight.

The leading categories of food being advertised are soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, biscuits, confectionery, snack foods, ready meals and fast food/quick service outlets, and most are HFSS.

Writing in the foreword of the report, Jakab says: “Overweight is one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st century: all countries are affected to varying extents, particularly in the lower socioeconomic groups.

“The picture is not improving in most countries of the WHO European Region. The figures for children from the WHO Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative show that, on average, one child in every three aged 6–9 years is overweight or obese.”

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1 comment

Is overweight overblown?

Posted by Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD,

This article does not detail how overweight is measured. A 2009 study by Freedman suggested a full 30% of children identified as overweight using BMI data actually measured as having normal fat stores using more sophisticated technology. The use of BMI is problematic on many levels. We can do better. Start measuring true biomarkers of metabolic health and stop pretending weight is a reliable measure of anything.

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