WHO Launches New Guideline for Protecting Children from Unhealthy Food Marketing

The World Health Organization (WHO) launched a new guideline on Monday in a bid to push governments to adopt more stringent regulations on the marketing of unhealthy foods high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt (HFSS) to children. 

The UN health body has hardened its stance on what it describes as predatory practices used by fast food companies. This is the first time the WHO has advised countries that only mandatory regulations to curb the industry’s ability to target children will address the problem. WHO added that the ubiquity of advertising means the measures must also “go beyond children’s media”.

“Marketing is done to promote products, and promoting products is done to improve profits,” Francesco Branca, WHO Director of Nutrition and Food Safety told reporters on Monday. “This is a classic situation where there is a conflict between the objectives of private entities and the interests of public health.” 

The updated guidance follows over a decade of stalled progress since the World Health Assembly first endorsed recommendations to protect children from harmful food marketing in 2010. Thirteen years on, policy coverage around the world remains poor, with just 60 countries worldwide adopting policies restricting food marketing to children. Only 20 of them have passed mandatory legislation. 

And the laws that are in place often have holes. For example, policies currently in place often only protect young children under the age of five, and many do not cover digital marketing, the main source of ad exposure for children in a digitized world.

“It is an increasing worry for all of us that children are now exposed to harmful food marketing in digital spaces,” said Dr Ailan Li, Assistant Director-General for Healthier Populations at WHO. “Digital marketing is the most important now, and for the future.” 

Guideline’s goal is to stem childhood obesity

Almost no progress has been made in reducing childhood obesity in two decades.

WHO’s drive to limit the power of unhealthy foods marketing to children is grounded in concern around the childhood obesity epidemic gripping the world, especially low- and middle-income countries. Almost no progress has been made in batting back childhood obesity rates in over two decades.

Nearly 40 million children under the age of 5 were estimated to be overweight or obese in 2020 – 41% them living in low- and lower-middle-income countries – and another 337 million children aged 5-19 suffered the same conditions in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. 

Efforts by industry to address the negative health effects of their food products exist, but continue to fall short. Interference in policymaking by the food industry through lobby groups remains commonplace, Li said, often resulting in “weakened, delayed or defeated policies”.

With no sign industry will voluntarily restrict itself in more meaningful ways, WHO officials say it is time to accept the market realities and impose regulations from the top down.

“The obligation of commercial actors is to continue practices that prioritize profit over health unless required to do otherwise,” said Juliette McHardy, a legal expert consulting on the commercial determinants of health at WHO. 

“Certain health-harming industries are by the very nature of their business models misaligned with the public health interests … including those segments of the food industry whose product portfolio largely comprises unhealthy options,” she said.  “The principal profit generating products and services of these industries require they grow their markets by shaping our preferences and knowledge in favour of harmful products and behaviours.”

Children’s right to health threatened

Mother and son in Usolanga, Tanzania. Childhood fat is traditionally seen as a sign of abundance, but too much of it can lead to obesity and related diseases later in life.

Marketing harmful foods to children is not just a question of healthy diets: it is a question of children’s rights. 

This is the conclusion arrived at by WHO based on the nearly 200 studies of children’s exposure to food marketing and its influence on eating-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in children reviewed to estblish its updated guidance. 

“Arguments in defense of marketing fade when the marketed products harm health and when marketing poses a threat to children’s rights,” WHO said. “Marketing is a recognized means to promote products that are harmful to health.”

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in 1989, recognizes the right of children to health, the achievement of their full developmental potential, privacy and freedom from exploitation. 

The omnipresence of marketing for unhealthy foods in the day to day lives of children – whether on television, at school, on social media or at sports clubs – violates those rights, as does the non-consensual exposure of children to advertisements that have the power to dictate health outcomes for them when they are adults, WHO said.

“Countries that are State Parties to the Convention are obliged to take action toward the fulfilment and realization of children’s rights,” said WHO. “This should include actions to protect children from marketing of HFSS foods as such marketing negatively affects children’s rights, such as the rights to health, adequate and nutritious food, privacy and freedom from exploitation.”

Dietary risks caused nearly 8 million deaths and over 10% of all disability-adjusted life years lost to NCDs in 2019. The evidence conclusively shows that marketing foods high in saturated fats, sugars and salt can influence children’s dietary preferences, and governments must do what they can to prevent children from becoming one of those statistics, WHO experts said. 

“A core part of regulating health-harming markets and market segments is narrowing in on the core business models of relevant commercial actors and reducing their ability to use marketing and other tactics to shape public preferences and undermine public knowledge of harms,” said McHardy.

“Building up public sector capacity in this way reduces those asymmetries in power which undermine political will and capacity to effectively devise, adopt and enforce marketing and other regulations,” she said. 

For the younger generations accustomed to seeing their futures overlooked for the sake of profit in the climate debate, the financial motive behind the marketing of unhealthy foods strikes a personal chord.

“By allowing predatory marketing to infiltrate our schools, our media and our communities, we are really jeopardising the rights of our children to grow, learn and develop free from exploitation,” said Pierre Cook Jr., Technical Advisor for Youth Voices at the Healthy Caribbean Coalition. “Profit often trumps the well-being of our children. We need to be steadfast in our resolve to challenge this pervasive culture of exploitation.” 

Image Credits: World Obesity, Jen Wen Luoh.

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