World health leaders push for junk food taxes and ad bans

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

The EU Pledge is a voluntary commitment made by the likes of Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez, Mars and Coca-Cola in late 2007 to "change the way they advertise to children”.©iStock
The EU Pledge is a voluntary commitment made by the likes of Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez, Mars and Coca-Cola in late 2007 to "change the way they advertise to children”.©iStock

Related tags Eu pledge Nutrition Obesity

The World Medical Association has lent its weight in support of tough new policies to curb obesity, including taxes on junk food and sugary drinks as well as bans on advertising to children.

A comprehensive program is needed to prevent and address obesity in all segments of the population, with a specific focus on children,”​ WMA said in a statement published at its annual meeting in Taiwan.

“The approach must include initiatives on price and availability of nutritious foods, access to education, advertising and marketing, information, labelling and other areas specific to regions and countries.” 

WMA called on governments to consider taxes on unhealthy foods and sugary drinks, and use the additional revenue to find research aimed at preventing childhood obesity.

However, it is advertising that appears to be concerning world health leaders the most. “[…] many advertisements are in conflict with nutritional recommendations of medical and scientific bodies”​, WMA noted, with junk food adverts “often scheduled”​ for times when there is “a large concentration of child viewers”.

The announcement comes in week when campaigners and industry came to blows over the EU Pledge, a voluntary agreement made almost 10 years ago in which major manufacturers committed to “change the way they advertise to children”.

Science shows…

children TV adverts
The UK government's Childhood Obesity Strategy made no mention of expected restrictions limiting the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods to children. ©iStock

WMA highlighted the “scientifically proven link”​ between the extent of media consumption and adverse effects of body weight on children. Whether it’s traditional television marketing or through social networks, video games and websites, WMA said the adverts being used increase children’s emotional response to brands and “exploit their trust​”.

“We know there is a link between the extent of advertising and childhood obesity, and so we are recommending that the advertising of non-nutritious products on television be restricted during programmes that appeal to children,” ​explained WMA president, Dr Ketan Desai.

“Children frequently watch programmes designed for adults, so regulators must ensure that legislation and regulation also limits marketing associated with such programs,” ​he added. 

Marketing mayhem

Earlier this week, BEUC claimed that the results of the industry-led EU Pledge on marketing to children had been “patchy”​. The nutritional criteria are also not strict enough, said the consumer group, as it targeted more action from industry as part of a new campaign. 

The EU Pledge secretariat Rocco Renaldi hit back at the claims. He told FoodNavigator that the average child under 12 now sees 88% fewer ads​ for products that do not meet the Pledge’s nutrition criteria compared to 2005.

Data published by the NGO Foodwatch​ in August last year showed that manufacturers in Germany continue to almost exclusively advertise unhealthy products to children, despite the ‘EU Pledge’ to change their ways.

In the UK, meanwhile, the lack of tough new marketing laws within the recently-published Childhood Obesity Strategy has been criticised by health campaigners and the Scottish government.

Doctors’ calling

WMA also flagged other interventions, including reformulation and restrictions on price promotions for unhealthy foods.

Physicians also had a role to play, WMA added: they must identify as soon as possible obesity in their patients, particularly children.

The role of doctors in tackling obesity was highlighted this week in research published in the Lancet​ medical journal​. A trial with more than 130 GPs showed that doctors who raised the issue of obesity during a consultation didn’t offend patients.

FoodDrinkEurope, which represents European food manufacturers, has argued that “discriminatory food taxes”​ to discourage the consumption of certain foods sidesteps the “larger challenge”​ of encouraging consumers to adopt healthier lifestyle. It has called for a more holistic approach to tackling obesity.

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