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Protecting children from the harmful effects of food and drink marketing

September 2014

Food and drink marketing is a vast and increasingly sophisticated industry, and children are among its prime targets. Advertisements on TV, the Internet and mobile phones are being integrated with sponsorship agreements and product placement to maximize their impact.

A child is eating food from a bowl at a table.
WHO/PAHO/C. Gaggero

Many advertisements promote foods high in fats, sugar and salt, consumption of which should be limited as part of a healthy diet. In 2007 and 2008, an analysis of television broadcasting in Greece showed that 65% of food advertisements promoted foods high in fats, sugar and salt.

Food advertising and other forms of marketing have been shown to influence children’s food preferences, purchasing behaviour and overall dietary behaviour. Marketing has also been associated with an increased risk of overweight and obesity in children. The habits children develop early in life may encourage them to adopt unhealthy dietary practices which persist into adulthood, increasing the likelihood of overweight, obesity and associated health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

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“Food companies spend billions of dollars developing marketing that really works,” notes Amanda Long, Director-General of Consumers International, a global consumer rights organization. “The majority of adverts seen by children around the globe are for heavily processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt and calories.”

Many governments are, however, expressing concerns about the impact of marketing to children. Some countries, such as Spain and Norway, have agreed with food and drink companies on self-regulation whereby industries take the lead implementing voluntary restrictions on marketing, overseen by governments.

In Europe, the United Kingdom (UK's) statutory ban on television advertising of foods high in fats, sugar and salt during children’s programming was a world first and broke new ground internationally for imposing more stringent conditions on food and drink industries.

Food marketing in the UK: from self-regulation to legislation

In 2003, the UK Government’s then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, asked the national Office of Communications (OFCOM) to consider proposals for restricting television advertising of food and drink aimed at children. Her request came in the wake of a growing body of research showing rising obesity levels among British children.

OFCOM concluded that broadcast advertising had a modest, direct effect on children and a potentially larger indirect effect. ‘Proportionate and targeted action’ in terms of changing advertising rules was advised.

Three years later, for the first time, statutory restrictions were applied to television advertising which meant that no advertisements for products high in fats, sugars or salt could be shown in or around programmes specifically geared to children under the age of 16.

Results to date suggest the impact of the marketing restrictions have been significant. By 2009, children were exposed to 37% fewer advertisements promoting products high in fats, sugars or salt compared to 2005. The UK Department of Health reported that annual expenditure for child-themed food and drink advertisements across all media decreased by 41%, from £103 million in 2003 to £61 million by 2007.

Yet some independent analyses suggest that these falling figures mask loopholes in current regulations. Through family entertainment shows – considered ‘adult’ programming as they fall outside current regulations – children are still exposed to unhealthy food and drink advertisements.

Malcolm Clark is the coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, a UK-based group which lobbies to protect children from junk-food marketing. He points out that the growth of new media has provided an alternate avenue for the promotion of unhealthy, processed food. “Parents’ efforts to help their children eat healthily are being undermined by sophisticated promotion of junk food to children: on TV, online, at the cinema, in magazines, in supermarkets, on food packaging, and for some even at school.”

WHO calls for responsible marketing

In light of evidence from the UK and other countries worldwide, WHO has recommended that governments play a leading role in reducing children’s overall exposure to food marketing and setting rules on the persuasive techniques companies can use, with a view to protecting children from the adverse impacts of marketing.

This is a key policy action contained in the WHO Global Action Plan 2013–2020 for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs), which was endorsed by the World Health Assembly in May 2013. This accompanies the WHO’s existing set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, endorsed by the Sixty-third World Health Assembly in 2010. WHO acknowledges that global progress will require policy action to address both TV advertising and all other forms of marketing.

For many years WHO has been the leading player in commissioning reviews of available evidence on the nature and impact of food and drink marketing and in producing global recommendations. In Europe, a WHO network of 28 countries led by Norway and focused on reducing marketing pressure on children has been meeting and sharing experiences since 2008 to collaborate on further action.

The next goal for countries in this network is to advance the development of more effective and comprehensive policies. This will require that governments set the criteria for policies, including important definitions around what foods are to be covered by the marketing restrictions.

In the new European Food and Nutrition Action 2015-2020, Member States will work with WHO to roll out the use of nutrient profile models that assess the nutritional values of foods and provide a scientific basis for marketing restrictions. The goal is to establish a universally high standard across the region and, ultimately, further restrict the impact of potentially harmful food and drink marketing on children.