Junk food advertising: WHO calls for legally binding treaty to end ‘predatory commercial practices’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/HAKINMHAN
GettyImages/HAKINMHAN

Related tags: WHO, Obesity, SDGs, Junk food marketing

The WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission is proposing a global, legally binding protocol to prevent brands marketing fast foods and sugary drinks to children.

In 2015, the world’s countries agreed on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The intergovernmental agenda of 17 goals include several targets in the food sector, including ending hunger, promoting health and education, addressing climate change, and monitoring sustainable production and consumption.

However, in a report published this week in The Lancet​, the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet ​Commission say that five years on, ‘few countries have recorded much progress towards achieving them’.

The Commission argues that children, aged 0-18 years, should be at the centre of the SDGs and calls on governments to harness coalitions across sectors to improve children’s health and wellbeing.

One significant threat to children’s health is what the Commission describes as ‘predatory commercial practices’: the marketing of fast foods and sugary drinks to children.

Irresponsible marketing

Children around the world are ‘enormously exposed’ to advertising and marketing techniques that ‘exploit their vulnerability’ and whose products ‘can harm their health and wellbeing’, according to the Commission.

Such companies make ‘huge profits’ from marketing junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages – the same unhealthy food items known to be major causes of non-communicable diseases.

To eliminate children-targeted junk food marketing, and consequently improve children’s health and wellbeing, the Commission is calling for ‘decisive’ and ‘strong’ action.

“Industry self-regulation does not work, and the existing global frameworks are not sufficient. A far stronger and more comprehensive approach to regulation is required” - ​WHO-UNICEF-Lancet ​Commission

In particular, the Commission is calling for the development of an Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The rights and entitlements of children are enshrined within the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) ratified by all countries, except the US.

While countries may provide these entitlements in different ways, the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet ​Commission says their realisation is the only pathway for countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for children’s health and wellbeing.

Legally binding protection

The Commission proposes a protocol be added to the CRC regarding the commercial marketing and targeting of products such as sugary beverages and unhealthy foods to children.  

As conventions are legally binding, national governments that agree to the CRC would be responsible for prohibiting or regulating businesses within their individual countries.

The protocol would also regulate specific methods of marketing to children, for example via television shows, games, and social media used by children and youths. It would also control the gathering and exploitation of children’s data for commercial purposes.

“Given the cross-border effects of commercial marketing, including through the internet and social media, and the multisectoral nature of the threat and needed response, an additional  protocol to the CRC adopted by the UN General Assembly could address the transnational elements of the problem and simultaneously drive national action for legal protection,” – WHO-UNICEF-Lancet ​Commission

For an Optional Protocol to be added to the CNC, a coalition of countries, supported by UN and civil society partners, would need to bring the proposal to the UN General Assembly.

If adopted, national governments would be required to submit periodic reports on how they implement regulation for ‘review and scrutiny’ by the committee.

Mandatory vs voluntary measures

The Commission’s proposal for a legally binding protocol is significant, particularly given the breadth of mandatory and voluntary initiatives aimed at promoting health and reducing obesity levels in children.

“Over 30 countries have introduced sugar taxes with beneficial effects on consumption and sugar content of drinks,” ​report co-author Anthony Collins, professor of global health and sustainable development at the University of College London, told FoodNavigator.

“Randomised controlled trials have shown clear benefits in terms of consumption of sugar.”

In the UK, for example, the government introduced a Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) in April 2018. In July 2019, it was reported the SDIL had been ‘hugely successful’,​ having removed the equivalent of 45,000 tonnes of sugar from soft drinks.

And in Mexico, a 10% tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages was introduced in 2014. The Ministry of Health reported sales of sweetened beverages had declined by 12% in its first year.

Broadly speaking, voluntary schemes have proved less effective. In 2016, the UK challenged all sectors of the food and drink industry to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute most to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020.

A two-year progress report​, however, revealed that industry achieved an overall 2.9% reduction (sales weighted average sugar per 100g) since 2015. For the out of home sector, based on more limited data, there was a 4.9% cut.

UK campaign group Action on Sugar support’s the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet ​Commission backing of mandatory action.

“In order to tackle the UK’s biggest public health crises and improve the health and future of every child, it’s imperative that we have mandated targets (and not self-regulation) to reduce not only sugar but also salt and saturated fat in food and drink,” ​Action on Sugar nutritionist Holly Gabriel told FoodNavigator.  ​ 

“Particularly given the slow response by certain food and drink manufacturers to the current voluntary programmes.”

Source:The Lancet 
‘A future for the world’s children?’ A WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission’
Published 18 February 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32540-1
Authors: Helen Clark, Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Anshu Banerjee, Stefan Peterson, Sarah Dalglish, Shanthi Ameratunga et al.

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