Broad restrictions need to be implemented on the marketing of foods and beverages to children, as the majority of these are high in salt, fat and sugar, according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Published last week, the report suggests one possible course of action would be to develop an international code on the types of foods that can be promoted to kids.
Other suggestions included substantially reducing the volume and impact of commercial promotion of high fat, sugar and salt foods to children, as well as addressing issues such as cross-border television advertising and promotional activities.
Improving children's diets
The report was based on a forum and technical meeting that took place in Norway earlier this year. This brought together academics, government officials and other experts for an examination of the current knowledge on the influence of marketing on kids’ diets, the implications of this on their health, and a review of national actions to address the issue.
“The purpose of measures to address food promotion is to improve children's diets and thus they should be part of a broader approach to improving diet and health, including measures to tackle the problem of the supply of energy-dense foods and to change consumer behaviour,” said the report, which has been hailed as a “blueprint for action” in the US.
According to consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “Congress should instruct the Federal Trade Commission to reduce the volume of junk food marketing to children. This WHO technical report provides a policy blueprint on how that objective can be achieved.”
Four regulatory possibilities
Part of the implementation of the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health (DPAS), the forum resulted in the establishment of four regulatory possibilities for the US and other governments to adopt.
These included: prohibiting promotional marketing of energy-dense, micronutrient-poor food products at specified times, in specified settings, using specified techniques or targeting specified age groups; prohibiting the commercial promotion of these foods and beverages to children; prohibiting the commercial promotion of all foods and beverages to children (except approved public health campaigns promoting healthy diets); and prohibiting all commercial promotion of any products to children.
The WHO technical committee said legal and regulatory climates differ from country to country, and described how the various suggested approaches have been used by different governments.
In the US, a new initiative introduced in recent weeks by the nation’s Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) involves a voluntary self-regulation programme, which would impose new requirements on product advertising to kids under 12.
The initiative requires that food and beverage products are not advertised in elementary schools, that food companies do not engage in product placement in editorial and entertainment content, and that they reduce the use of licensed characters for promoting products that do not meet certain nutritional criteria.
Legal framework important
But according to participants at the forum, self-regulation alone is not sufficient, and is likely to be more effective if it operates within a legal framework with incentives for change.
They suggested that clear targets need to be developed, and effective mechanisms need to be established for monitoring both statutory and self-regulatory approaches. A global response is also required to address the transnational nature of promotional strategies, said the WHO.
It added that any fines for breaking codes of practice should take into account the annual turnovers of the businesses involved and should be an “adequate disincentive”. It also called for more public awareness about the problem in some countries, and suggested the potential for nutrient profiling to support public health professionals, government and industry should be examined further.
The report, Marketing of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children, called for “national action to protect children from marketing” by substantially reducing the promotion of junk foods.
“There is a vital role for WHO in the protection of child health through the development of guidelines and international standards for marketing to children, and in advocating effective action by governments,” it concluded. - (Decision News Media, December 2006)
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