Policies limiting unhealthy food marketing to kids ‘falls short’ of global agreement

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Safeguards to minimise children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing have fallen short of a World Health Organization (WHO) resolution, a study claims. ©iStock
Safeguards to minimise children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing have fallen short of a World Health Organization (WHO) resolution, a study claims. ©iStock

Related tags: Nutrition

Safeguards to minimise children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing have fallen short of a World Health Organization (WHO) resolution to ease the obesity burden, a study has concluded.

Findings that appear in the latest issue of Bulletin of the World Health Organization ​lay bare the shortcomings of governments worldwide to limit the marketing of high-fat, sugary, and salty food and beverage products to children.

According to Vivica Kraak, assistant professor in food and nutrition at Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and author of the study: "No member state has implemented comprehensive legislation or enforced mandatory regulations to prohibit the marketing of fatty, salty and/or sugary branded food and non-alcoholic beverage products to young people​."

“Politicians and legislators in member states have both the responsibility and the political tools to protect children’s diet to ensure that they grow up in healthy food environments,”​ she said.

“The WHO leadership has been clear on this point in the 2016 Ending Childhood Obesity report.  Member states should set the example and be held accountable for improving food environments to reduce obesity risk for young people.”

Resolution WHA63.14

Kraak
Dr Vivica Kraak found that international entities have fallen short on agreements to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods to children and teens.©Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

The report follows the endorsement in May 2010 of Resolution WHA63.14 by the 192 WHO member states. This pledge restricted the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverage products high in saturated fats, trans fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt to children and adolescents globally.

The findings by Kraak’s team make for grim reading at a time when globally around 42 million children younger than 5 years and 155–200 million school-aged children are overweight or obese.​ Nearly 2.7 billion adults will be overweight or obese by 2025.

Similar research​ ​recently carried out by charity Cancer Research UK also believed adverts for unhealthy foods like sweets and fast foods should be banned before 9pm.

A policy assessment was carried out by Kraak and her colleagues from England, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Mexico.

The group focused on the actions taken and progress achieved between 2010 and early 2016 by the WHO and other United Nations organisations to implement the WHO resolution.

Since 2010, governments worldwide have favoured self-regulation by industry to limit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products.

Kraak believed that there were several weaknesses and loopholes associated with existing industry self-regulatory programs to improve the food marketing environments for children and teens. 

Progress has indeed appeared fragmented as a survey​ of 59 countries in 2011 demonstrated that, although national governments had developed or implemented some relevant statutory measures, the nature and extent of the marketing restrictions differed across countries and regions.

Industry progress

online advertising, advergame, child marketing, Copyright PedroPlaya
The research team found that the nature and extent of the marketing restrictions differed across countries and regions.©iStock/pedroplaya

The team also investigated the actions of relevant civil society organisations, philanthropic institutions and industry representatives from food and beverage manufacturers, retailers, restaurant companies and trade groups.

Progress made by the industry included that documented by The Access to Nutrition Foundation – a private health-related philanthropic institution.

They released its first Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI),​ a global monitoring report, in 2013 that rated 22 transnational food and beverage manufacturers across certain criteria, one of which was responsible for food and beverage marketing practices.

A score of 10 represented the highest level of coordinated actions to support responsible marketing to children and adults. Among the companies assessed, the scores for responsible marketing were 5.2 for Danone, 4.8 for Unilever, and 4.0 for Nestlé.

In the corresponding report for 2016​ many companies’ marketing scores had improved with Danone at 8.5, Unilever 7.7 and Nestlé 7.4.

Nestlé, which ranked first in the 2016 Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI) for its marketing of breast milk substitutes, reiterated its commitment to marketing such products responsibly and said it would look closely at the areas where ATNI recommended improvements.

Amanda Sourry, president of foods at Unilever said at the time that the company was pleased to receive independent recognition of its efforts to improve nutrition but "recognised more hard work is needed to embed nutrition in our global ambition to make sustainable living commonplace".

The report also highlighted efforts​ ​within the industry to partner with UNICEF and the World Food Programme, to tackle hunger and undernutrition in countries with high obesity levels and diet-related conditions.

However, Kraak was adamant more could be done. We reviewed more than six independent monitoring reports of the food and beverage advertising and marketing practices of companies and industry programs such as the International Food and Beverage Alliance.”

“The ATNI 2013 and 2016 reports are the most comprehensive that show many transnational food and beverage companies still do not share information about their marketing practices and have not yet made any pledges for specific marketing that influence the diet and health of children and teens from birth to age 18 years.”

Source: Bulletin of the World Health Organisation

Published online ahead of print: dx.doi.org/10.2471/BLT.15.158667

“Progress achieved in restricting the marketing of high-fat, sugary and salty food and beverage products to children.”

Authors: Vivica Kraak et al

Related topics: Policy, Diet and health

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