UN urges protection of children against marketing of unhealthy food

Cartoon of children watching a television advertisement of unhealthy food

21 January 2011 – The United Nations health agency today called for action to reduce the exposure of children to the marketing of food with high contents of fat, sugar or salt, which exposed them to the risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCD) caused by poor diet during their lives.

Television advertising is responsible for a large share of the marketing of unhealthy foods and, according to available evidence, advertisements influence children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In May last year, WHO member States endorsed a new set of recommendations on the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. The recommendations call for national and international action to reduce the exposure of children to marketing messages that promote foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt, and to reduce the use of powerful techniques to market them to children.

“Noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes, today represent a leading threat to human health and socio-economic development,” said Ala Alwan, the WHO Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health.

“Implementing these recommendations should be part of broad efforts to prevent unhealthy diets – a key risk factor for several noncommunicable diseases,” he said.

Implementing the recommendations will help countries strengthen their ability to foster and encourage healthy dietary choices for children and promote the maintenance of a healthy weight, Dr. Alwan said.

According to WHO, 43 million pre-school children worldwide are either obese or overweight. Scientific reviews have also shown that a significant portion of television advertising that children are exposed to promotes “non-core” food products which are low in nutritional value.

Poor diet is one of the four common factors associated with the four main noncommunicable diseases – cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and chronic lung diseases – which are responsible for about 60 per cent of deaths worldwide, or over 35 million people annually.

More than 9 million deaths are premature – people dying before reaching the age of 60 – and could be prevented through low-cost measures at the world’s disposal, including stopping tobacco use, reducing the harmful use of alcohol, and promoting healthy diets and physical activity.

Preparations are ongoing for the first UN General Assembly High-level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of NCDs, which will be held from 19 to 20 September in New York.

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