Children’s health affected by marketing of unhealthy foods

WHO's Europe office calls for regulation of ads; all 53 member states in European Region concur

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Wednesday 19 June 2013

Upwardly mobile (Credit: Samrat Mukherjee) Marketing unhealthy food to children has proven to be disastrous for their health, says the World Health Organization (WHO). In a recently released report, the WHO regional office for Europe calls for tighter controls on the marketing of unhealthy food which is causing obesity in children in the continent.

To fight childhood obesity, the international agency wants restriction on all advertisements of food with high amounts of saturated and trans fats, free sugars and salt. The leading categories of advertised foods are soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, biscuits, confectionery, snack foods, ready meals and fast food outlets.

Tightening restrictions on marketing is central to this fight, says the new report—Marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children—from the WHO regional office, Europe. This report examines trends in marketing methods and media platforms. It also reviewed some of the recent policy action by WHO European member states and provides a summary of recent scientific evidence related to the issue.

Unfair targets

While adults know when they are being targeted by advertising, children cannot distinguish, making them particularly receptive and vulnerable to messages that lead to unhealthy choices, says the report. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, while releasing the report, said, “Millions of children across the European Region are subjected to unacceptable marketing practices. Policy simply must catch up and address the reality of an obese childhood in the 21st century.

Online advertising expenditure in three leading markets (all-products-and-services), 2001–2010,-€-(million)

Children are surrounded by adverts urging them to consume foods high in fat, sugar and salt, even when they are in places where they should be protected, such as schools and sports facilities.”

Jakab adds that there is a strong link between television (TV) viewing and obesity in children. Recent data suggest that children become obese not just because they watch TV, instead of being active, but also because they are exposed to advertising and other marketing tactics. The food industry increasingly uses cheap new marketing channels, such as social media and smart phone apps, specifically to target children. Alongside them, TV is the dominant form of advertising; a large majority of children and adolescents watch TV more than two hours each day on average.

The report also points out that children now are spending time on social networking websites. They are more familiar with smart phones. The food manufacturers have shifted their focus to these tools of communication. They are also developing games for the promotion of their product.

Percentage of children owning mobile phones, by age group, United Kingdom, 2011

As per the WHO report, brand recognition starts in early childhood. Children who recognize multiple brands by the age of four years are more likely to eat unhealthily and be overweight. Research has demonstrated that overweight children in particular respond to the presence of branded food packaging by increasing their consumption.

The need for regulation

While all 53 member states in the European Region have signed on to restrictions on the marketing of such food to children, most rely on general advertising regulations. These regulations do not specifically address the promotion of such foods. Only six countries—Denmark, France, Norway, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden—have fully implemented regulatory approaches—legislation, self-regulation or co-regulation—of marketing food and drinks to children.

India also needs such regulation as there is no effort on the part of the government to regulate advertisements, say experts. The Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) has, however, developed guidelines. ASCI spokesperson Alen Colac says that ASCI had its code and guidelines for the advertisement of food and beverages; these are being followed. He adds that around 30 complaints have been received so far against food and beverages companies.

Seema Gulati from National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation says the country needs strict regulation to control aggressive advertisement of junk food. Mentioning a research article published in the medical journal Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism in May, Gulati says it was clearly found that at least 40 per cent of children want to experience the product they have seen in advertisements. This demonstrates the impact of advertisement on children. The study included 1,800 children and 1,800 mothers.




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