Global taskforce calls for laws to limit kids exposure to junk food marketing

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 15th August 2008

New legal controls, including cross-border laws, are needed to halt all marketing of junk food and soft drinks to children up to 16 years, according to new proposals from the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO).

The only promotions permitted to target children should be for foods which meet strict criteria for a healthy diet, says IASO’s policy arm, the International Obesity Taskforce (IOTF).

An IOTF working group is calling for legal steps as part of an international code on marketing to govern satellite as well as terrestrial television, along with guarantees that schools are kept ‘commercial-free’. The recommendations form part of the ‘Sydney Principles’, which set out seven broad conditions, which are recommended to underpin the development of global standards on marketing.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva has agreed to implement an action plan to prevent obesity and non-communicable diseases, which includes the development of draft recommendations on marketing to children. WHO is scheduling consultations with industry, NGOs and governments before the end of the year and then will finalize its recommendations on marketing for health ministers to consider.

The IOTF report, just published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, is based on the working group’s consultation with consumer groups, NGOs, industry associations and ministries. It suggested that “self-regulatory codes, by their nature, even if fully enforced, would not substantially reduce the large volume and high impact of marketing obesogenic foods and beverages to children.”

The working group noted there was “very strong support for regulations to cover all commercial promotions, given that children are being increasingly targeted through a variety of marketing strategies such as sponsorships, competitions, loyalty schemes, websites, mobile phone text messages and viral marketing.”

Prof Boyd Swinburn, from Deakin University in Melbourne who led the IOTF working group, said that voluntary measures pledged by some sections of the food and beverage industries to refrain from marketing to under 12s did not go far enough.

The IOTF report that 70% of respondents felt restrictions should apply at least up the age of 16.

Professor Boyd believes the proposals are vital to protect the rights of children. “The Sydney Principles are based on ethical values and how best to protect children and the rights of children to be free from commercial exploitation. This is where the discussion of marketing to children now needs to be centred,” he suggested.

Professor Boyd reported that there was now a groundswell of support for a model international code on marketing to children, which had been prepared by Consumers International in conjunction with the IOTF and backed by IASO. The code, launched on World Consumers Rights Day in March, makes draft recommendations for WHO to consider in developing its final recommendations to health ministers. The code would restrict marketing of junk food and soft drinks to anyone under 16, but would allow the promotion of foods that have a ‘healthy’ nutritional profile.

A number of changes have been implemented in some areas as obesity causes great concern across the world.

In the UK, Ofcom, the government regulatory agency, has introduced restrictions on advertising to children under 16, but only where they form the majority of the audience.

Sweden and Norway do not allow advertising of any kind to children under 12 as part of their standard controls on commercial television, but satellite broadcasting bypasses national regulation.

In April 2008 the EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media Vivian Reding promised there would be no further regulations restricting advertising in Europe.

In the US, a number of leading food and beverage manufacturers have begun to alter the way they market food to children under 12. Via a voluntary program called ‘The Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative’, 14 major food and beverage companies, which accounted for more than two-thirds of children’s food and beverage television advertising expenditures in 2004, are participating in the scheme. The companies have pledged either to not advertise any of their food and beverage products to children or only advertise better-for-you products to children.

In Australia new legislation could be on the way, with the Federal Government suggesting a “full comprehensive strategy” will be announced by the middle of next year to tackle the obesity epidemic.

The seven ‘Sydney Principles’ outlined in the report were:
1. Support the rights of children to safe, nutritious food
2. Provide substantial protection to children from commercial exploitation
3. Be statutory in nature to ensure a high level of protection
4. Take a wide definition of commercial programs to encompass all types of commercial targeting of children
5. Guarantee commercial-free childhood settings such as schools and child care facilities
6. Include cross-border media in international regulatory agreements
7. Evaluate, monitor and enforce the regulations