January 22, 2011

WHO: Reduce Marketing Of Unhealthy Foods To Children

Health officials said Friday that world governments must work with industry to restrict advertising foods that are high in sodium, sugar and dangerous fats and targeted at children, in a worldwide effort to tackle premature disease and the obesity epidemic.

The callout is part of a focus on combating non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart and lung disease that are a growing cause of premature death in most poor countries.

Non-communicable diseases are the focus of global health policy this year, culminating in a 193-member debate at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) executive board, meeting this week, has been discussing how to make use of the leaders' attention, and a set of new recommendations attacking the marketing of harmful food to children is part of that effort.

Non-communicable diseases now account for 90 percent of premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries, where obesity is a rising problem, said Dr. Timothy Armstrong, who heads the WHO's efforts on promoting healthy diet and physical education.

Of the more than 42 million children worldwide under the age of 5 who are overweight or obese, 35 million are in poor countries, Armstrong told a news conference.

The advertising of junk foods and drinks that are rich in salt, sugar and saturated trans fats can encourage children to consume them. But advertising can also promote a healthy diet, according to the WHO's call on the UN health agency to draw up recommendations.

The WHO's member states told it to work with the private sector as well as governments and civil society. The recommendations aim to tackle both the frequency of advertising and its "power" -- such as the use of cartoon characters that appeal to children.

Officials with WHO consulted with leading companies in the sector. Those include Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Grupo Bimbo, and the World Federation of Advertisers.

The companies agreed to draw up a code of conduct and committed not to market unhealthy products to children under 12 years of age, said Armstrong.

Companies were living up to this pledge in some markets.

"There are other markets where perhaps companies are not adopting the same policies in terms of not advertising their products to children," he said.

Armstrong declined to name those companies but said the WHO had a sense that companies were not fulfilling their commitment in poor countries in the way that they appeared to be in developed markets.

The differences in results highlighted the need for governments to monitor the implementation of any agreements reached within the industry. "The concept is that governments must lead this process," he said.

It was up to governments to find the best approach. Some might prefer to legislate a ban on advertising, while others could agree independently monitored self-regulation with industry. But the WHO was aware that legislation and enforcement was beyond the capacity of some small, poor countries, he added.

Much advertising reached children through international television channels, so domestic legislation might be ineffective, Norway's director-general of health, Dr. Bjorn-Inge Larsen, told Reuters.

Larsen said governments had a range of options and these recommendations were a first step. Pressure on companies to cut back on advertising and ultimately production of the products would grow in much the same way as efforts to limit the consumption of tobacco and alcohol had done, he said.


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