In May 2010, the World Health Assembly unanimously adopted World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children.
The recommendations aim to stem the rising rates of childhood obesity by reducing the impact of marketing junk food – foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) – on children.
However, despite evidence pointing to the harmful impact of HFSS marketing and repeated commitments to halt the rise of childhood obesity by 2025, a report published this month found that implementation of the recommendations has been “patchy”.
“Policies and regulations frequently apply to pre-digital media only, apply only to younger children and not to adolescents, use narrow definitions and implementing criteria, and almost never address the complex challenges of cross-border marketing.
“This can be explained, in part, by the strong opposition and scrutiny that countries have faced from some parts of the private sector, and by weak self-regulatory schemes. As a result, the World Health Assembly has requested that WHO provide additional technical support to member states in implementing the set of recommendations.”
The paper gives practical advice to support states in taking these important steps to reduce the impact of HFSS food marketing on children and moving towards a healthier food environment across Europe.
While regulations in many member states focus only on broadcast advertising, there is “clear evidence” that children are exposed to marketing through many other communication channels and mechanisms: in the digital sphere, via product display, and through packaging and sponsorship of HFSS foods.
National restrictions on junk food advertising must take into account the varied media used by food manufacturers, the report says.
The authors also want to see protection extended to adolescents who are also negatively affected by HFSS marketing. Current restrictions typically protect children below the age of 12 or 13 years old.
The authors highlight weak spots within the EU and criticise member states for failing to effectively regulate cross-border marketing at a regional level.
“They should reflect on how better cooperation and EU harmonisation could avoid weakening national HFSS food marketing restrictions,” they write.
Research suggests the foods most frequently marketed to children are consistently “non-core” foods that are not part of a healthy diet and are discouraged in food-based dietary guidelines. Examples include sugary breakfast cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, confectionery and savoury snack foods.
Nutrient profile models are therefore useful in helping to identify which foods can be marketed to children, the authors write.
“Such HFSS foods are clear targets for restrictions; however, without explicitly defined nutritional criteria or thresholds, implementing restrictions becomes practically impossible – a challenge that has been one of the biggest obstacles to policy development.”
The report notes that only two countries in the WHO Europe region – Turkey and Slovenia – have adopted the WHO nutrient profiles into legislation.
In other countries, the lack of nutrient profiles highlights the limited impact of action taken so far.
“The Spanish case is illustrative here, where commendable efforts to reduce the persuasive appeal of HFSS food marketing, via restrictions on marketing techniques, are greatly undermined by the absence of a nutrient profile model,” they write.
“In its failure to identify foods whose marketing should be restricted, the impact of the policy is unavoidably limited; this has been demonstrated in independent studies showing that much marketing for HFSS foods is still found on media popular with children in Spain.”