Governments should crack on the advertising of junk food to children, recommended the World Health Organisation yesterday as part of a global strategy to tackle non-infectious diseases -- such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes –that cause 90% of premature deaths in poor and not-so-poor countries such as India.
The rubbish children eat is the leading cause of childhood obesity, which affects 42 million children, 20 million in India and China. Adults eat junk too, but they are onstensibly supposed to be smart enough to make an informed choice. Children are not.
But since most children -- here defined as under 12 -- can bully parents into buying them whatever is touted on TV, such restrictions are needed.
For fat children make fat adults. The perception that ‘puppy’ or ‘baby’ fat disappears as children grow older is a myth that puts them at health risk in the near future, reported the British Medical Journal (BMJ) last year. While earlier studies have shown that excess weight during teenage years pre-disposes them to weight problems as adults, the BMJ study – which tracked 5,863 children to young adulthood – found that health problems hits them before their teens.
Several studies have shown that cutting back on junk-food advertising to children reduces obesity. A large US government-funded study found that banning fast-food advertising on television alone reduces the number of overweight children by 18% and obese children by 14%.
The WHO now wants governments to work with industry to restrict advertisements of foods high in salt, sugar and dangerous fats – artery-blocking saturated and trans fats found in vanaspatis and processed foods -- targeted at children. It has got food majors such as PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, Mars, Nestle, Unilever and World Federation of Advertisers on board, with all committing to not marketing unhealthy products to children under 12. The WHO guidelines address the frequency, timing and placement, and the packaging and marketing of products in advertisements, including using cartoons or giving away free toys.
The trouble, say consumer groups, is that while multinationals live up to their pledge in countries with stringent laws – such as the UK, Sweden, Finland and Norway – they continue marketing to children in countries were laws do not exist or enforcement of guidelines is non-existent.
Take India, for instance. Few people outside the food industry and the advertising world know that the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory voluntary organisation of the advertising industry drafted ‘Self-Regulation Guidelines on Advertising of Foods & Beverages directed at children under 13 years of age” way back in December 2007. The guidelines recommend “caution and care should be observed in advertising of foods and beverages, especially ones containing relatively high fat, sugar and salt (to children)”.
Yet, almost all junk food ads on television target children, from instant noodles to burgers and biscuits. “Self-regulation means everything goes until someone complains. Consumers have to report violations to ASCI’s Consumer Complaint Council, of which I’m a member, but all we do is discuss intra-company problems,” says consumer-activist Bejon Misra, founder of Health&You.
Since a lot of advertising reaches children through satellite channels, guidelines need to be closely monitered and implemented. With some experience in taking tobacco and alcohol ads off air and print, the government at least has a roadmap, however imperfect, to follow.