Lax marketing regulations contribute to obesity crisis in children

Copenhagen, 18 June 2013

WHO calls for tighter controls on the marketing to children of foods high in saturated and trans fats, free sugars and salt, in order to fight childhood obesity. Tightening restrictions on marketing is central to this fight, according to a new report from WHO/Europe: “Marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children”.

Unfortunately, marketing unhealthy food to children has been proven to be disastrously effective. While adults know when they are being targeted by advertising, children cannot distinguish, for example, between advertisements and cartoons. This makes them particularly receptive and vulnerable to messages that lead to unhealthy choices.

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, 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. 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.”

The promotion of foods high in saturated and trans fats, free sugars and salt has been recognized for some time as a significant risk factor for childhood obesity and the development of diet-related noncommunicable diseases.

Children exploited in the marketing of unhealthy food

The food industry increasingly uses cheap new marketing channels, such as social media and smart phone apps, specifically to target children. Alongside them, television (TV) is the dominant form of advertising; a large majority of children and adolescents watch TV more than two hours each day on average.

There is a strong link between 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. Most products featured are high in fat, sugar or salt. The leading categories of advertised foods are soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, biscuits, confectionery, snack foods, ready meals and fast-food outlets.

Brand recognition starts in early childhood. Children who recognize multiple brands by the age of 4 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 foods high in saturated and trans fats, free sugars and salt to children, most rely on general advertising regulations, which 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.

The WHO/Europe report clearly demonstrates that the marketing of foods high in saturated and trans fats, free sugars and salt has damaging consequences for children across the Region. At a WHO conference in Vienna, Austria on 4–5 July 2013, health ministers will address policy adjustments at the national level to protect the next generation.

For further information, contact:

Tina Kiaer
Communications Officer
Tel.: +45 51 97 92 43