New technologies to tackle digital marketing of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods aimed at children and adolescents

Hauranitai Shulika

A group of experts and stakeholders from all over the WHO European Region recently highlighted the role of new technologies in responding to the harmful impact of digital marketing of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods targeted at children and adolescents.

During a June 2018 event organized by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, the group examined the uses of these new technologies, which employ digital media techniques such as social media, online games, virtual environments, personal profiling, location targeting and mobile marketing.

One of the event’s objectives was to design an innovative online tool that would help governments throughout the Region to monitor and control inappropriate online marketing and protect young people. WHO/Europe aims to provide further support for Member States to develop national capacity and tools to monitor and ultimately tackle this global health challenge.

In recent years, big industries have been increasingly active in targeting children and adolescents through online marketing strategies. They offer young people a false sense of purpose and belonging, and potentially harm their health and well-being by increasing their odds of developing NCDs.

Warning about the power of brands, Dr Gerard Hastings of the University of Stirling (United Kingdom) said, “Kids don’t know what Marlboro is – so why, speaking as a parent and grandparent, do we let them know what Coca-Cola is?”

Experts pointed out that digital advertising and marketing not only impact NCD risk factors such as unhealthy diets, smoking and alcohol; they also have profound repercussions on overall well-being. Children and adolescents can benefit from technology as a means to gather knowledge or complete educational tasks – but continuous distraction on the screen and persuasion through advertising or other targeted campaigns distract them from these primary tasks. This can have impact on their educational performance and future employment. Experts also emphasized that young people have the right to be free from economic exploitation.

Calling for strong, coordinated action

Experts highlighted that governments have a responsibility to protect children and adolescents from persuasive marketing tactics. Some national-level regulations aiming to control digital marketing are already in place. However, to achieve tangible results, strong and coordinated action on new legislation and the enforcement of existing regulations across the Region are needed, with the participation of all stakeholders.

This is an important year for the prevention of NCDs, with the United Nations High-level Meeting on NCDs set to take place in September 2018.

Overview of current policies and regulations

The Vienna Declaration on Nutrition and Noncommunicable Diseases in the Context of Health 2020 (2013), the WHO European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015–2020 and, most recently, the report of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (2016) all recommend that Member States enact a series of comprehensive programmes to promote the intake of healthy foods and reduce the intake of unhealthy foods.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control regulates the marketing of tobacco, including new tobacco products. It requires Parties to adopt a comprehensive ban on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. The European Commission regulations for tobacco also explicitly ban internet marketing.

The WHO European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020 protects children and adolescents in particular, requiring systems to be in place to prevent inappropriate and irresponsible alcohol advertising and marketing. It includes an indicator for children’s and adolescents’ reported exposure to the full range of alcohol marketing.

Individual Member States are also taking policy measures to protect young people from digital marketing. In Finland, for example, the Alcohol Act attempts to limit cross-border marketing targeted at all age groups. In the United Kingdom, the advertising ban has been expanded to non-broadcast media.

For alcohol, the European Parliament and the European Council have adopted new revisions to the European Union’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive on the coordination of laws and regulations concerning the provision of audiovisual media that cover online media broadcasting.