Governments must work with industry to restrict advertising of foods high in salt, sugar and dangerous fats targeted at children to tackle an epidemic of obesity and other diseases, health officials said on Friday.
The call is part of a focus on combating non-communicable diseases — cancer, diabetes, heart and lung disease — that are a growing cause of premature death in poor countries.
Non-communicable diseases will be the focus of global health policy this year, culminating in a debate of heads of state at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
The World Health Organization’s executive board, meeting this week, has been discussing how to make use of the leaders’ attention, and a set of new recommendations tackling marketing of harmful food to children is part of that effort.
Dr. Timothy Armstrong, who heads the WHO’s efforts on promoting healthy diet and physical education, said non-communicable diseases now account for 90% of premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries, where obesity is a rising problem.
Of the 42 million children worldwide aged below 5 who are overweight or obese, 35 million are in poor countries, he told a news conference.
Recognition that advertising of junk foods and drink rich in salt, sugar and saturated and trans fats can encourage children to consume them, while advertising can also promote a healthy diet, led the WHO’s assembly last may to call on the U.N. health agency to draw up the recommendations.
The WHO’s 193 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” — for instance, the use of cartoons that appeal to children.
WHO officials consulted leading companies in the sector — Coca-Cola, Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald’s, Mars, Nestle, Pepsico, Unilever 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 the age of 12, he said.
In some markets companies were living up to this pledge.
“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 the companies or markets concerned 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 different results underlined the importance of governments monitoring the implementation of any agreements reached with the industry.
“The concept is that governments must lead this process,” he said.
It was up to governments to choose the best approach. Some might prefer to legislate a ban on advertising; 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 states, he said.
Norway’s director-general of health, Dr. Bjorn-Inge Larsen, said much advertising reached children through international television channels, so domestic legislation could be ineffective.
Dr. Larsen said governments had a range of options and these recommendations were a first step. Pressure on the companies to curb advertising and ultimately production of the products would grow in the same way as efforts to limit the consumption of tobacco and alcohol had done, he said.