WHO report calls for urgent action to protect children from digital marketing of food

The European Office of the World Health Organization (WHO) is sounding the alarm. A report denounces the lack of supervision of advertisements targeting the youngest, especially on the Internet.  Advertisements for chocolate bars or sweets flood television screens, smartphones and social networks.

The findings are published in a new report from the WHO Regional Office for Europe, Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives, which calls for immediate action by policy-makers to recognize and address the growing issue of marketing targeted to children via digital media.

Like physical inactivity and physical inactivity, junk food is pointed as one of the main factors leading to overweight. The WHO has been warning for many years about obesity – which has doubled since in children and adolescents. In Europe, about one in four children is overweight or obese.

This debate, formerly concerning television, becomes crucial in view of the time spent in front of other screens by children and adolescents. “Manufacturers benefit from currently limited in terms of Internet advertising regulation to impose their products to children, online marketing is potentially much more powerful than any other form of advertising,” warns the WHO report.

“Our governments have given the prevention of childhood obesity the highest political priority. Nevertheless, we consistently find that children – our most vulnerable group – are exposed to countless numbers of hidden digital marketing techniques promoting foods high in fat, sugar and salt,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Parents might be unaware of or underestimate the harmful impact of digital marketing, but this report makes clear the effect of such marketing on our children. It is the responsibility of policy-makers to recognize the new threat presented by digital marketing of food to children and to act swiftly.”

Food marketing has been identified by the scientific community as an important contributor to the “obesogenic” environment, in which foods high in fats, salt and sugars are promoted extensively, are more visible and are cheaper and easier to obtain than healthy options. Food marketing has been shown consistently to influence children’s food preferences and choices, shape their dietary habits and increase their risk for becoming obese.

The continuing lack of effective regulation of digital marketing threatens the efforts of policy-makers to halt the growing childhood obesity epidemic. “More than 60% of children who are overweight before puberty will be overweight in early adulthood, and an estimated 25% of school-aged children in Europe are already overweight or obese. This predicts a grim future, as we know that overweight and obesity are key contributing factors to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,” said Dr Gauden Galea, Director of the Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course at WHO/Europe. “Allowing advertisers and the food industry to market products high in salt, fats and sugars to children through digital platforms with inadequate regulation can have huge health and economic consequences.”