Louise Meincke is Head of Policy & Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund International. She has also worked at the Consortium for Street Children, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Louise is an elected Fellow of the RSA.
Some things are difficult to ignore and force you to look at the world in a different light. For me, this happens when I think about the sheer scale of the global child obesity epidemic and its serious health implications.
Last month, the head of the World Health Organization - who has set up a Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity - stated that the evidence is unequivocally clear that the globalised marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks is a key factor driving child obesity around the world and that governments need to take immediate action.
There are 42 million under fives globally who are overweight or obese, and the exposure of children to, and the power of, marketing is immense in a globalised economy . Governments must recognise the highly complex and fast-moving, digital environment where marketing to children is both direct and indirect (in the form of corporate sponsored education materials, incentives, contests, and product placement).
Voluntary versus mandatory regulation
Governments often welcome voluntary schemes proposed by industry to self-regulate their marketing to children. For example, the Latvian government signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Federation for Food Enterprises in 2011, encouraging changes to child-orientated soft-drink advertising; while in Spain a voluntary code was developed between government and industry setting out general guidelines for advertising aimed at children and a restriction on product placement and use of celebrities. However, these schemes are largely insufficient to make a real difference. For example, a 2009 US report by the Council of Better Business Bureaus found a 99% compliance rate by business to voluntary targets. Despite this compliance, an assessment by the NGO Children Now found that 68.5% of advertisements were still for nutritionally poor products, highlighting that voluntary targets are often not stringent enough.
The lack of success from voluntary schemes suggests a need for mandatory regulation. Indeed, some countries have already implemented such policies. For example, back in 2007 the UK government banned the advertising and product placement of foods high in fats, sugars and salt (as defined by a nutrient profiling model) during TV and radio programmes that have 20% or more viewers under 16 years old (relative to the general viewing population). In South Korea internet advertising which includes “gratuitous” incentives to purchase (eg. free toys) have been prohibited since 2010. Such schemes are unlikely to be welcomed by fast food or sugary drinks companies, but it is important that responsible action is taken to help curb the childhood obesity epidemic.
Impact of eating habits developed in childhood
We have previously highlighted that the early years are key to tackling the global obesity epidemic, as our habits and preferences for certain types of food and drink start in the womb and stay with us throughout life. It is therefore vital that we put marketing to children under close scrutiny and ensure that effective mandatory regulation is introduced by governments worldwide. To be effective, however, mandatory regulation must be comprehensive and underpinned by clear criteria; this includes defining terms like ‘marketing’ (eg. all marketing techniques and communication channels), ‘food’ (eg. which foods will be included and which will be exempted), ‘marketing to’ (eg. marketing with a specific appeal to children, or prime time TV that is not aimed at children but that they are likely to watch), and ‘children’ as anyone under 16 years of age. This mandatory regulation should also form part of a comprehensive approach to promote healthy diets, as outlined in our NOURISHING policy framework.
The World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity is due to publish its final recommendations later this year. In our consultation response to its interim report, we argued that the recommendations must provide concrete, multi-sector policy options, which support and enable countries to take action to address childhood obesity. These recommendations should also make detailed reference to actions governments can take to control the marketing of unhealthy food to children, to ensure that the environment children are living in is one that encourages a healthy diet.
World Cancer Research Fund International’s policy framework – called NOURISHING - includes more than 250 policy actions from 100 countries to help governments worldwide create healthier food environments & reduce obesity.