Obesity experts call for stricter rules on junk food ads targeted at children

Papers published in the Lancet medical journal insist politicians must press WHO to bring in code to prevent children being encouraged to make poor dietary choices.

Tough new controls must be introduced worldwide to stop commercial companies marketing unhealthy foods and drinks which make children overweight and stunt their growth, say some of the world’s leading obesity experts.

No country has yet reversed its obesity epidemic, they point out in a major new series of six papers in the Lancet medical journal. The best that has been achieved is a flattening of childhood obesity rates in countries like the US and UK, but not among poorer families. The levels are still very high, which means that many thousands of overweight children will have health problems as adults. In England, a third of 10- to 11-year-olds and more than a fifth of four- to five-year-olds are overweight or obese.

Tim Lobstein and colleagues, in one of the papers, call for governments to press the World Health Organisation to take radical action so that children do not develop a taste for sweet drinks and unhealthy food. They say it should bring in a code of marketing, similar to that which prevents babymilk companies promoting their products to women in a way that deters them from breastfeeding.

“The food industry has a special interest in targeting children,” they write. “Not only can the companies influence children’s immediate dietary preferences, but they can also benefit from building taste preferences and brand loyalty early in life, which last into adulthood.”

Lobstein and colleagues calculate the money to be made by food companies from overweight children. “Fat children are an investment in future sales,” said Lobstein, from the London-based World Obesity Federation. They use data from the USA, where children are on average 5kg heavier than those of 30 years ago, and so consume an extra 200 kcal a day more than a child from the 1970s would have – or 73,000 kcal more per year

The average cost of food energy is about 56 cents per 100kcal, they say – so 200kcal a day implies spending an extra $1.12 a day per child, or more than $400 a year. “With about 50 million school-age children in the USA, the combined value of their excess food consumption each year approaches $20bn. A high proportion of these children will continue over-consuming through adulthood, creating a market for the US food and beverage industry, which we estimate to be worth considerably more than $60bn each year.”

With such high sums at stake, says the paper, the food industry is likely to resist controls in the same way that the tobacco and alcohol industries have.

Children’s poor nutrition worldwide – including in the UK– leads to stunting as well as obesity. It is not only in poor countries that stunting – poor growth in children eating food without sufficient nutrients – exists side by side with obesity. The authors point out that the national school measurement programme in England shows children in poor households are not only likely to be fatter but also shorter than children in affluent families.

To protect the health of children, there must be “substantial change in the governance of food supplies, controls on commercial competition and measures to promote and protect healthy food supplies,” they say.

“Food supply targets cannot be left to the whim of multinational food companies, commodity markets and speculative financiers, but will need to be kept under tight supervision and regulation.”

Source: The Guardian

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