WHO Urges Reduction of Unhealthy Food Marketing to Children

January 30, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

Kids exposed to the marketing of unhealthy foods through television, the Internet, and print ads are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes later in life, says the World Health Organization. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
Kids exposed to the marketing of unhealthy foods through television, the Internet, and print ads are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes later in life, says the World Health Organization. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
With childhood obesity a growing problem around the globe, the World Health Organization is urging countries to take action to reduce children’s exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods.

Children are exposed to such marketing through television, the Internet, and print ads, and evidence shows that advertisements influence children’s food preferences, says the organization.

WHO warns that exposure to marketing of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt can increase the chance of children developing conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes later in life.

The WHO member states endorsed a new set of recommendations in May 2010 that call for national and international action to reduce children’s exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods.

“Implementing these recommendations should be part of broad efforts to prevent unhealthy diets—a key risk factor for several noncommunicable diseases,” Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO’s assistant director-general for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health, said in a press release.

A University of Alberta-based global study of TV advertising published in the September 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that Canadian children are targeted with more unhealthy food ads than children in 10 other countries, including the United States.

Canadian children are exposed to seven TV ads per hour, compared with Greek children who are exposed to nine ads per hour—the most among children in all countries. However, 80 percent of the ads shown to Canadian kids promoted foods high in fat and sugar, compared with 65 percent in Greece.

“Marketing has a negative impact on children’s food choices,” Dr. Kim Raine, a University of Alberta health researcher and one of the authors of the study, told Postmedia News. “But food and beverage companies have no barriers in aggressively marketing their products to children.”

Such marketing, she added, contributes to rising childhood obesity rates and therefore should be banned. Data released by WHO shows that 43 million preschool children around the world are overweight or obese.

“[A marketing ban] is not a cause-and-effect solution [for the childhood-obesity epidemic],” Raine said. “It’s a very complicated issue, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

WHO says poor diet is one of the four common factors linked to diabetes, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic lung diseases, which are responsible for about 60 percent of all deaths around the world. A portion of these deaths could have been prevented through measures to stop smoking, reduce alcohol abuse, and promote healthy diets and physical activities, the organization said.

WHO will bring its recommendations to the first United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of NCDs (noncommunicable diseases) on Sept. 19 and 20, 2011, in New York.

The meeting will highlight noncommunicable diseases’ health, development, and socioeconomic impacts, particularly in developing countries.