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‘Comprehensive policy approach’ needed to protect children from harmful effects of food marketing, says WHO policy brief

young woman with glasses smiling
3 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
Young girl clapping at dining table as plate of cookies is being moved towards her

Governments globally need to take a “comprehensive policy approach” in order to tackle unhealthy food marketing to children, a new policy brief from WHO has revealed.

The paper includes three recommendations for a “comprehensive policy” approach which include restricting of “all forms of food marketing” that promote foods high in sugar, salt, and fat (HFSS), as well as all types of food marketing and marketing more generally “to which a broad range of children are exposed.”

As of yet, no country worldwide has come up with such a policy in relation to marketing of unhealthy foods, the paper claims. Many instead have chosen to follow a “stepwise policy approach”, restricting marketing for only certain types of foods or certain types of marketing, the authors add.

“Given that the impact of food marketing is a function of exposure and power, all policies should reduce both the exposure of children to marketing and the power of that marketing” says the report.

Sixty countries have adopted policies which restrict marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. Some 20 of those use mandatory marketing restriction policies, while 18 use restrictive measures for marketing in the school environment.

“Several countries have multiple approaches, mandatory and voluntary and there is great variation in scope, such as channels or settings covered” the report says. A lot of countries also don’t have policies that protect children up to the age of 18, which the WHO says, “only partially [protects] children”.

Countries should think about “broadening the scope of their policies” to protect young people more effectively from the negative effects of food marketing, the paper says.

In March 2022, Unilever announced it would cease to promote its full food and drinks portfolio to children under the age of 16, including popular ice cream brands Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum.

Its marketing campaigns will not target under 16s through any form of media, as well as stopping the collection and storing of data on this age group.

This year, Spain has begun to address the marketing of HFSS foods to young people, by proposing to ban influencers from promoting unhealthy foods to children under the age of 16.

In the UK, the Government’s HFSS legislation is expected to include a ban on any television advertising before the 9pm watershed. This law however, which was supposed to come into force in January 2023, has been delayed to January 2024.

Earlier this month, a global evidence review commissioned by the WHO and published by the University of Liverpool revealed implementing policies that restrict a child’s exposure to marketing of HFSS foods would benefit their health.

Emma Boyland, Professor in Food Marketing and Child Health at the University of Liverpool, said: “This review provides a robust new synthesis of evidence showing that food marketing is associated with increased intake, choice, preference, and purchase requests in children and adolescents. Furthermore, it reinforces the message that more effective restrictions around food advertising are needed to help restrict children’s exposure to unhealthy products and ensure the choices they do make are beneficial to their health.

“Every food-related decision is influenced by a myriad of factors beyond our control – the availability, accessibility, affordability, marketing and promotion of processed items all seeking to grab our attention and be the one we purchase to the detriment of competitor brands’ bottom lines. Take away the advertising and manipulation, and we can begin to tip the balance in favour of being able to make our own minds up about what we eat and drink.”


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