Marketing unhealthy food and drinks to children: global framework
Australia has endorsed the World Health Organization’s Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children
The World Health Organization has expressed concern about a lack of action to reduce unhealthy food marketing to children
Evidence shows that advertising influences the food preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns of children aged 2 to 15 years.1 Unhealthy diet is a key modifiable risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes, and risks associated with unhealthy diets can begin in childhood and build up over a lifetime.2
Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children
A resolution of the 63rd World Health Assembly in 2010 urged World Health Organization (WHO) Member States to reduce the impact on children of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars and salt.2 Member States including Australia endorsed a set of 12 recommendations on the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children which aim to guide countries in designing new policies or strengthening existing policies.
A foreword to the WHO recommendations notes that today’s food environment is quite different to that experienced by previous generations. It is characterised by wide availability and heavy marketing of unhealthy food and drinks that offer palatability, novelty and convenience. Marketing is pervasive and reaches children through all media platforms and places where they gather, such as schools, supermarkets, at sports clubs, on television and the internet. The WHO sums up the evidence on the reach of unhealthy food marketing:
“… although television remains an important medium, it is gradually being complemented by an increasingly multifaceted mix of marketing communications that focuses on branding and building relationships with consumers. This wide array of marketing techniques includes advertising, sponsorship, product placement, sales promotion, cross-promotions using celebrities, brand mascots or characters popular with children, web sites, packaging, labelling and point-of-purchase displays, e-mails and text messages, philanthropic activities tied to branding opportunities, and communication through ‘viral marketing’ and by word-of-mouth. Food marketing to children is now a global phenomenon and tends to be pluralistic and integrated, using multiple messages in multiple channels.”
The WHO recommendations provide broad guidance to Member States on policy aims, and principles around effective implementation and monitoring. They are particularly clear on the need to keep settings where children gather free of unhealthy food marketing, including settings such as pre-schools, schools, playgrounds, health clinics for children and families and venues for sporting and cultural activities.
Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity
A subsequent WHO document, the Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity released in 2016, reinforces the importance of States implementing these recommendations, as part of a comprehensive program to improve diets. This report refers to unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages is related to childhood obesity and expresses concern about Member States’ failure to give significant attention to actions arising from the 2010 World Health Assembly resolution.3
A comprehensive summary of evidence, including multiple systematic reviews, concludes that unconstrained food marketing clearly promotes low-nutrition foods and negatively effects children’s food behaviours and diet-related health.1 The review concludes that the question of whether global action is necessary has been answered, and the goal for future policy research must be to identify how necessary changes in food marketing to children can be achieved.