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How new World Health Organization guidelines can protect children from unhealthy food and drink marketing

New guidelines from the World Health Organization add to pressure on the Australian Government to crackdown on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, reports Alison Barrett.


Alison Barrett writes:

Policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing are in accordance with human rights standards – such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child – and may reduce health inequities, according to new guidelines released by the World Health Organization this week.

In addition, the new guideline for ‘policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing’ make recommendations for mandatory regulation of marketing of unhealthy food and drink products, finding that mandatory policies are more effective than voluntary.

“Aggressive and pervasive marketing of foods and beverages high in fats, sugars and salt to children is responsible for unhealthy dietary choices,” Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety of WHO, said in a statement. “Calls to responsible marketing practices have not had a meaningful impact. Governments should establish strong and comprehensive regulations.”

Building on the 2010 WHO ‘set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children’, the new guidelines are based on recent evidence on the impact of food marketing on children’s health, eating behaviours, and food-related attitudes.

Based on several considerations, including that food marketing negatively impacts children’s food choices and that enabling children to achieve their full developmental potential is a human right, the following good-practice statement was developed:

Children of all ages should be protected from marketing of foods that are high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt.”

Public support in Australia

Member of Parliament Dr Sophie Scamps tabled a Bill last month aimed at banning ads of unhealthy foods from TV and radio between 6am and 9.30pm, as well as banning ads outright on social media and other online environments.

“We know our children are exposed to over 800 junk food ads on TV alone every year, and that there is a direct link between those ads and childhood obesity. The current restrictions are not strong enough and self-regulation is just not working,” Scamps said in a statement.

Public support for a ban on targeting children with marketing of unhealthy food online is high in Australia. New research by the Cancer Council Victoria shows that 76 percent of adults surveyed support such a ban.

The majority of people surveyed (81 percent) also believe that unhealthy food and drink companies should not be allowed to collect children’s personal information to use for marketing purposes, the research showed.

“The online environment is an integral part of children’s daily lives. Children should be able to go online to learn, access information or communicate with their friends and family without being bombarded with unhealthy food marketing,” Executive Manager of Food for Health Alliance Jane Martin said in a statement.

“Industry knows this harmful digital marketing works. These unhealthy ads can be highly targeted, tailored and effective at building loyal customers from a young age, but as company profits grow, it’s our children’s health that’s at risk. Unhealthy diets can lead to children being above a healthy weight, and if this persists into adulthood increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers”.

Highlighting other environments of concern, research by Cancer Council South Australia found that almost 80 percent of advertising of food or drink on government-owned public transport assets – such as buses and bus shelters – within 500 metres of SA public schools were of junk food.

Currently in South Australia, there are no restrictions on the types of food and drink advertising permitted on government-owned assets.

“Evidence shows that junk food ads make it difficult to build healthy eating habits in children, which can lead to health impacts later in life,” Cancer Council SA Prevention and Advocacy Manager Christine Morris said in a statement.

“We have seen encouraging results from international studies that have shown that banning junk food advertising can help to reduce junk food consumption amongst young people,” she said.

Health equity

Of importance for health equity, children of lower socioeconomic status in high-income countries are more exposed to food marketing than children of higher socioeconomic status.

“As a result, policies to protect children from the harmful impacts of food marketing can be expected to reduce health inequities,” the report states.

In line with the recent findings from Cancer Council Victoria, the report found that policies to protect children in high income countries from the harmful impact of food marketing are largely acceptable to the public.

However, the food and beverage industry generally oppose government-led restrictions by lobbying and other actions to influence health policy.

A WHO and UNICEF joint publication, ‘taking action to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing: a child rights-based perspective’, outlines actions to take when countering opposition.

Mandatory regulations recommended

WHO recommends the “implementation of policies to restrict marketing of foods high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt to which children are exposed” and that these policies:

  • are mandatory
  • protect children of all ages
  • use a government-led nutrient profile model to classify foods to be restricted from marketing
  • be sufficiently comprehensive to minimise the risk of migration of marketing to other media, to other spaces within the same medium or to other age groups
  • restrict the power of food marketing to persuade.

By “migration of marketing”, the recommendation refers to the movement of marketing from restricted to unrestricted mediums or spaces – for example, if a policy restricts marketing on television, but not digital marketing, it is possible that digital marketing may increase.

The report notes that due to the observational nature of most studies reviewed, the recommendation is conditional, highlighting the following elements that “maximise the effectiveness of policies”:

  • Of studies evaluating voluntary policies, significantly more studies showed undesirable effects than desirable effects on exposure to, and power of, food marketing. This was not the case for studies evaluating mandatory policies.
  • Of studies evaluating policies designed to restrict food marketing to children that included only children aged 12 years or younger, significantly more studies showed undesirable effects than desirable effects on exposure to, and power of, food marketing. This was not the case for studies evaluating policies that included children older than 12.
  • Of studies evaluating policies that used a company-led nutrient profile model to define foods to be restricted from marketing more studies showed undesirable effects than desirable effects on exposure to food marketing. This was not the case for studies evaluating policies that used a government-led nutrient profile model.
  • Some studies indicated that policies that were too narrow in scope (i.e. not comprehensive) may have led to migration of marketing (e.g. from children’s television programmes to non-children’s television programmes, from younger to older age groups).
  • Food marketing uses strategies that appeal to young audiences, and marketing using such strategies affects food choice and dietary intake. Studies indicated that mandatory policies result in reductions in use of powerful marketing strategies, such as the use of promotional characters and other persuasive techniques that appeal to children.

According to the report, analyses on the impacts of food marketing exposure and power showed that most evidence was about television advertising.

Evidence on the impact of policies on exposure and power of digital food marketing was limited and only evaluated voluntary policies. However, this evidence showed that voluntary policies addressing digital food marketing did not reduce exposure to and power of such marketing.

“Digital marketing is of growing concern because it facilitates engagement, which can amplify the marketing message and overall impact of marketing,” the report stated.

Contextual considerations

Policies should be devised in the best interests of children and the recommendations should be adapted to local and national contexts, according to the guidelines.

Contextual considerations include available resources, the policy context, structure and mechanisms and stakeholders to consult or engage with at different stages of the policy cycle.

Policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing will work best when implemented as part of a comprehensive multi-faceted approach to creating a supportive food environment, including but limited to school policies on food and nutrition, fiscal measures and nutrition labelling.

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