The world of nutrition and health was all a buzz last week with comments on the UN 2011 High Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases (NCD). Comments from Travis Saunders Obesity Panacea, Marion Nestle Food Politics Sept 19 Post, and Fooducate Sept 21 make for interesting reading. The UN makes a good case for focusing on NCD as they report 36 million of the 57 million global deaths (2008) are due to NCD with the largest culprits being cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes (1) . They also recognize that these diseases are linked to an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity. Hurrah!! Furthermore, they report concern regarding the increasing rates of obesity in children and youth and address several risk factors for NCD and ways of creating a health-promoting environment. One target that is receiving much attention is food marketing to children.
Food companies currently market directly to children, a factor believed to be associated with childhood obesity. Food advertising, aimed at children, influences their food preferences, eating habits, and the types of foods they request their parents/guardians purchase (2). Furthermore, the most heavily marketed products are often the unhealthiest. A recent study conducted in Australian grocery stores reports that of products with promotional characters, all 352 of them, 76% were foods and beverages that would be considered less healthful (3). Food marketing on television is a concern as the majority of these foods are low in nutrients and high in fat, sugar, and sodium. In the Draft Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases they say they will “Take measures to implement the WHO set of recommendations to reduce the impact of the marketing of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children…”
There are two ways of implementing policies to reduce food marketing to children. 1) Industry self-regulation and 2) Government imposed. In Canada, advertising to children is generally industry regulated under the direction of Advertising Standards Canada, which administers the Broadcast Code of Advertising to Children. In 2007 a group of food and beverages manufactures developed the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative where they agreed to advertise only “better for you” products and to refrain from advertising to children under the age of 12. One province, Quebec, is the exception to the rule. Their Consumer Protection Act prohibits advertising products for children to children under the age of 13.
A recent Canadian study has looked at the effects of these implementation options as they relate to food marketing to children. In the 90 TV hours analyzed 25% of the 1,809 advertisements were food/beverage advertisements for 104 different products. When advertising to children was self-regulated, a greater number of advertisements were for “less healthy” (high in fat, sugar and sodium) products (4). Although an isolated study, these results suggest that government not self-regulation will be needed to change marketing practices to children. This calls into question the potential of the UN recommendations to provide true benefits, as in the current draft, enforcement does not seem to be on the menu rather voluntary global targets.
(1) Alwan A, Maclean DR, Riley LM, d’Espaignet ET, Mathers CD, Stevens GA, et al. Monitoring and surveillance of chronic non-communicable diseases: progress and capacity in high-burden countries. Lancet 2010 Nov 27;376(9755):1861-1868.
(2) Cairns G, Angus K, Hastings G. The extent, nature and effects of food promotion to children:a review of the evidence to December 2008. WHO Press 2009:1-173.
(3) Hebden L, King L, Kelly B, Chapman K, Innes-Hughes C. A Menagerie of Promotional Characters: Promoting Food to Children through Food Packaging. J Nutr Educ Behav 2011 Sep-Oct;43(5):349-355.
(4) Kent MP, Dubois L, Wanless A. A nutritional comparison of foods and beverages marketed to children in two advertising policy environments. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2011 advance online publication 30 June 2011.