WHO and MoH hold national consultation on regulating marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children

Participants discussing high sugar content in beverages at the national consultation.

Marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children took center stage at a national consultation organized by WHO and Ministry of Health (MoH) on 18 August. The consultation aimed at achieving national consensus on a policy approach to regulate the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS FNAB) to children. More than 40 stakeholders working in the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Women and Child Development, trade and commerce institutions, academia, professional organizations and UN agencies together discussed policy and strategic options for regulating the marketing of HFSS FNAB to children.

“Dietary habits are formed in childhood and continue through to adulthood. Advertising has a strong influence on what children consume and mainly relates to products with a high content of fat, sugar or salt. By regulating such marketing we empower children to make informed choices and adopt healthy diets instead,” emphasized Dr Razia Pendse, WHO Representative to Sri Lanka, at the national consultation.

The case for marketing regulations

Three in four deaths in Sri Lanka are due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Unhealthy dietary habits formed in early childhood – among other factors – increase the risk of NCDs later in life. Focused interventions from childhood onwards are needed to address the growing threat of NCDs.

The prevalence of childhood obesity in Sri Lanka is rising. Childhood obesity has alarming consequences – from low self-esteem and depression to greater risk of NCDs such as diabetes and heart disease.

Wide availability and extensive marketing of products, particularly HFSS FNAB products, make it harder for children to maintain healthy diets and push them towards unhealthy choices.

“Today, there are many ways to market products to children - from TV to radio to the Internet. Gaps in regulation allow for more targeted advertising to children and result in unhealthy food choices to look more appealing,” said Dr. Siriwardhana, Director – NCD, Ministry of Health.

Starting the conversation on change

In 2010, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution with recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages (FNAB) to children.

In line with the WHO framework for implementing the recommendations on the marketing of FNAB to children, WCO commissioned a situation analysis in 2016 to study the extent and impact of HFSS FNAB advertising and marketing to children. The report revealed a variety of exploitation and misinformation strategies used by HFSS FNAB marketing to target children. The strategies included offering complimentary gifts; directly appealing to children by using child actors and celebrities and convincing parents and children of health benefits associated with the products. The situational analysis provided valuable input to the national consultation and revealed the need for greater regulation on marketing to children in Sri Lanka.

Step-by-step process for policy development

WHO Regional Advisor, Nutrition and Health for Development, Dr Angela de Silva, shared national, regional and global experiences and best practices in implementing WHO recommendations. Among the lessons learnt from other countries include the importance of setting clear goals and targets; applying marketing restrictions for a wider age range of children and carefully monitoring compliance to the new legislation.

The importance of ensuring that children are protected against the negative impact of such marketing and protecting child rights was also highlighted at the consultation.

A real-time discussion through an online questionnaire was used to reflect and build consensus on a number of issues including adopting a comprehensive versus a stepwise policy approach; which children need protection and what communication channels and marketing techniques to target.

Everyone agreed that there is an urgent need to control the marketing of FNAB to children. Building consensus among stakeholders is a key WHO recommendation for developing and implementing a successful policy. In addition, the consultation agreed on the next steps of appointing a subcommittee to determine the terms and scope of the policy approach for Sri Lanka.

The consultation was instrumental in initiating efforts to ensure that children in Sri Lanka are protected against the negative impact of such marketing and grow in an enabling food environment that promotes healthy dietary choices.

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