Why is WHO urging countries to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing?

While the WHO released comprehensive guidelines, here's why doctors from India want them implemented right away!

ByChetana Belagere

Published Jul 05, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedJul 05, 2023 | 9:45 AM

Childhood obesity and other related non-communicable diseases have become rampant in India. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the world grapples with a rapidly escalating childhood obesity epidemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has sounded an alarm, urging immediate action to protect the health and future of our nation’s children.

The WHO on Monday, 3 July, released a comprehensive guideline — “Policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing” — urging governments to implement stringent measures to restrict the marketing of foods high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, and salt to children.

This crucial step aims to combat the escalating health crisis fueled by unhealthy eating habits and to safeguard future generations from the detrimental effects of manipulative food advertising.

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‘India should implement this soon’

Paediatricians, food scientists, and experts South First spoke to opine that with the soaring obesity rates in India and its devastating health consequences becoming increasingly apparent, it is imperative that our government takes a resolute stand and implements the WHO’s comprehensive recommendations and guidelines.

Speaking to South First, senior paediatrician Dr Arun Gupta says, “The WHO makes it clear that unhealthy diet is a public health risk for overweight and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. The guideline is an evidence-based document. Failure to act decisively now will result in dire consequences for our children and place an enormous burden on our healthcare system. The time for action is now.”

Dr Gupta is also Central Coordinator, Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), and Convener, Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), as well as former member of the Prime Minister’s National Council on India’s Nutritional Challenges.

Also Read: Advertised food products: Buy them with a pinch of salt 

What are WHO’s recommendations?

Implement restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods 

The first crucial recommendation is the implementation of mandatory restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. In India, where childhood obesity rates are soaring, it is imperative to regulate the marketing practices that contribute to unhealthy dietary choices.

Dr Sanjay G, Paediatrician at Sanjeevini Hospital in Bengaluru, says that a minimum of 8 to 10 children walk into his clinic with obesity-related issues every week.

“It is very difficult to explain to a child as young as 7 to stay away from packaged food or pizzas and burgers. When asked, parents complain that it is what they watch on TV and that is what they ask for,” he tells South First.

He adds, “Unhealthy food marketing often employs persuasive techniques that target children, such as the use of appealing visuals, celebrity endorsements, and popular cartoon characters.”


Recommendation 1: Implement mandatory restrictions (iStock)

These tactics create powerful associations between unhealthy foods and positive emotions, leading children to develop preferences for products that are detrimental to their health.

By imposing restrictions on such marketing practices, India can disrupt these associations and promote healthier food choices among children, he opines.

Also, aggressive food marketing exacerbates the availability and accessibility of unhealthy food options, particularly processed and sugary products. The fast food, packaged snacks culture has seeped into our villages too, leading to obesity issues in not just children but adults too. Several children are ending up with early diabetes, explains Dr Sanjay.

Childhood obesity not only increases the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and certain types of cancer, but also impacts children’s mental well-being and self-esteem.

The long-term consequences of obesity can burden individuals and healthcare systems, leading to increased healthcare costs and reduced productivity.

Also Read: Celebrities endorsing unhealthy products face the ire of parents

Establish government-led nutrient profile model

The WHO’s recommendation to establish a government-led nutrient profile model holds immense potential for addressing the evolving dietary landscape in India.

According to food experts, with the gradual shift from traditional diets to processed and unhealthy foods, the need for a robust framework to determine which foods should be restricted from marketing to children becomes increasingly vital.

This nutrient profile model would serve as a powerful tool in classifying foods based on their nutritional composition, ensuring that only nutritious and wholesome options are promoted.

Representational pic of food products

Recommendation 2: Government-led nutrient profile model. (Wikimedia Commons)

By aligning this model with national dietary guidelines, the Indian government can effectively regulate the marketing of foods that fail to meet the required nutritional standards.

This approach not only protects children from exposure to unhealthy dietary choices, but also acts as a preventive measure against the rising tide of childhood obesity and its associated health issues, opine doctors.

Dr Gupta says that India is already working on draft regulations for front-of-package labels (FOPL) and can quickly finalise the definition of “High in Salt, Free Sugars and Saturated Fat” (HFSS) and use it for both for warning labels, as well as restriction of marketing.

Agreeing with this, Dr Soujanya Bhat, paediatric nutrition specialist from Bengaluru, says, “By determining which foods should be restricted from marketing, we can create an environment that promotes nutritious choices and shields our children from the adverse effects of unhealthy diets.”

Also Read: Did you know night shifts and pickle are carcinogenic?

Address problem of cross-media marketing

Another important guideline from WHO is to combat the adverse effects of cross-media marketing. The rapid growth of digital media has revolutionised the way children access information and entertainment. Children have unprecedented access to information and entertainment.

Representational picture of supermarket.

Health Star ratings on products is to help consumers choose which product is healthy and which is unhealthy. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Advertising on Instagram, social media influencers, and domains that really impact children’s preferences and consumption patterns, especially regarding food choices, need to be monitored carefully,” says Dr Sreenivas N, paediatrician, Karnataka Institute of Medical Sciences.

“India must focus on targeting digital marketing platforms and such influencers who promote unhealthy food products. Under the garb of giving good health, several companies promote unhealthy food choices. This needs to be curbed,” he tells South First.

He adds that by implementing restrictions on marketing in these areas, we can shield our children from harmful food influences and create an environment that encourages healthier eating habits.

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Restrict persuasive techniques

Prohibiting the use of persuasive techniques that appeal to children, such as celebrities and cartoon characters, is paramount in our fight against childhood obesity. These marketing tactics create strong associations between unhealthy foods and positive emotions, leading children to develop preferences for such products.

By implementing restrictions on these persuasive techniques, India can disrupt these associations and encourage healthier food choices among children. This will be instrumental in tackling the obesity epidemic and fostering a culture of nutritious eating from an early age.

Dr Arun Gupta and others have strongly advocated against using celebrities to endorse food products, even if it is for adults.

Stressing the need to act quickly on warning labels and restrict marketing. Dr Gupta says, “Current regulations in India are almost absent on restriction of marketing of unhealthy foods. Once the regulation is adopted each state would need to set up a mechanism for monitoring it and initiate action to penalise the offenders. Ministry of IB and IT can be given this task.”