WHO says junk fast food TV ads targeting children

The World Health Organisation has told countries powerful marketing tools impact eating habits of the young and impressionable.

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Since television commercials of foods high in fat, sugar or salt greatly influence eating habits of the young and impressionable and make them vulnerable to non-communicable diseases, World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged countries to reduce exposure of children to such marketing by implementing a set of international recommendations.

Poor diet is one of the four common factors associated with non-communicable cardiovascular diseases, chronic lung diseases cancer and diabetes, which cause around 60% of deaths worldwide, or over 35 million, annually. More than 9 million of these deaths are premature (before 60 years of age) and can be prevented through low-cost measures to stop tobacco use and alcohol abuse and promote healthy diets and physical activity.

WHO said a large share of unhealthy foods is marketed through TV commercials and a systematic review of evidence revealed such advertisements influence children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption.

In May 2010, WHO member-states endorsed a new set of recommendations on marketing foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, calling for national and international action to reduce exposure of children to ads that promote foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt.

The member-states suggested legislations or policies, intergovernmental collaboration and cooperation with civil society and public and private stakeholders to blunt powerful tools aimed at marketing such foods to children. WHO also asked countries to put in place a system to monitor and evaluate implementation of the recommendations.

While some countries have taken off advertisements of such products from prime time television and radio and regulated their marketing, a large number of countries, particularly developing nations such as India, are yet to take proactive measures.

As per WHO, about 43 million pre-school (under five) children worldwide are obese. Of these, nearly 35 million live in developing countries.

Scientific reviews have also shown that a significant portion of television promotionals expose children to “non-core” food products which have low nutritional value and cause child obesity.

In fact, WHO’s May 2010 estimate was that more than 42 million U-5 children worldwide would be obese by the end of last year - a majority in developing nations.

A recent study by Diabetes Foundation of India (DFI) found that TV commercials have such impact on schoolchildren that they consider eating fatty foods fashionable. At least 54% of children surveyed preferred buying foods shown in commercials and 59% said they would continue to buy such foods.

“Junk food advertisements have profound effect on children’s eating habits since they are frequently displayed during prime time without legal or official regulation,” Anoop Misra of DFI said.

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