‘Business as usual not an option’ says WHO on junk food marketing

A shelf in a supermarket. (Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay)

The World Health Organization has invited comments from the public online on the guidelines on protecting children from the harmful effects of food marketing.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed that when it comes to the private sector’s efforts on combatting the harmful effects of food marketing on children, resorting to “business as usual” is not a solution. 

This comment, by a WHO spokesperson to Geneva Solutions, comes after the health body launched a public consultation on 29 June on a draft guideline to protect children from harmful effects of food marketing. The public is encouraged to register their opinions on the draft until 31 July.

The aim of the guideline is to step up pressure on governments, food industry players, parents and advocacy groups to protect children from lifestyle concerns like obesity and to arm them with policy options to combat the influx of junk food marketing targeted at children. 

The guidelines, drafted by the department of nutrition and food safety of the WHO, point out that no country has implemented a comprehensive policy to date to tackle this issue despite evidence of the harm perpetuated by it. 

Diets heavy in fats, salt and sugar have been identified as one of the leading causes for obesity.  In 2020, 38.9 million children under the age of five were estimated to be overweight which, if unmanaged, can lead to diseases like diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. 

What the guidelines say 

The new guideline pushes for governments to adopt a comprehensive policy that will not only mention the kinds of food that are to be restricted but also specify the types, techniques and channels of marketing that are to be restricted. This includes video games, sponsored emails, influencer videos, brand sponsorship displays during events and other digital marketing strategies. 

This is not the first time the WHO has taken steps to tackle this issue. In 2010, the member states endorsed a set of recommendations aimed at restricting the big budgets spent by companies on marketing of junk food and sugary drinks to children. 

In 2012, the WHO issued a set of policy recommendations to tackle the harmful marketing done by companies that sell processed food and beverages that stressed eliminating all such advertisements that target a broader range of children. 

As of May 2022, only 60 countries out of the 194 member states of the WHO have adopted such policies, mainly in the Americas and Europe. 

Corporations need to be accountable

Any attempt to restrict the sale of junk food to children involves standing up against cash-rich corporations that manufacture these products. These corporations also spend millions of dollars every year on aggressive marketing to increase their revenues. 

A WHO spokesperson told Geneva Solutions that promoting healthy diet habits could be possible only if the private sector commits to manufacture healthier options and reformulate the products that are in the market already. 

“‘Business as usual’ is not an option, and it is essential that the private sector implements and is held to account for its commitments to change.”  

When Geneva Solutions highlighted that consuming junk food and non-alcoholic beverages might be more affordable than purchasing healthy food options, the spokesperson said that the agency is working on several food environment policy guidelines including one on making healthier food options more affordable.

“Due to the complexity of how food-related decisions are made, it is important for governments to create food environments that enable healthy diets – there is no single intervention that will achieve this.”