A new code that would restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods to children has been proposed by two international lobby groups who claim the food industry is failing to self-regulate, especially in developing countries.
The International Obesity Taskforce (IOTF) and Consumers International (CI) have jointly developed the International Code on Marketing of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children, which they plan to present to the World Health Assembly next month.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) received a mandate last year to develop its own set of recommendations on marketing to children. It is expected to begin its consultation process over the next 12 months.
In the meantime, the IOTF and CI will be urging WHO member governments to go with their recommendations when the WHO begins its consultation.
Dr Tim Lobsten, director of childhood obesity programmes at IOTF, said the code is a model that gives a firm basis for the WHO's own recommendations.
According to IOTF, 177 million children under 18 are presently clinically overweight or obese, and therefore under threat from obesity-related diseases. This includes 22m overweight children under 5.
It is predicted that, by 2015, some 2.3bn adults will be overweight, of which 700, will be obese.
"The time has come for all concerned to recognise that an international code, enforceable in law, is the best way forward," said Professor Arne Astrup of the University of Copenhagen, president to the International Association for the Study of Obesity (of which IOTF is the policy and advocacy arm).
"Voluntary measures and individual pledges from some companies offer inadequate protection when children are being targeted in the internet, by mobile phone as well as via television, and especially in developing countries where these kinds of calorie-dense foods can have a devastating impact on children's health."
There are some national enforceable programmes in place, such as the UK restrictions on advertising foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) around television programming aimed at children. This is accompanied by some parallel non-broadcast regulations.
However the IOTF said this "fell short" of imposing a 9pm watershed for HFSS food ads to kids on television - one of the key features of the new code.
This has proved a controversial point for debate, and some of those opposing it have pointed out that new viewing technologies mean people no longer watch television in a liner manner, but can chose what they want to watch when.
In December a number of global food companies including Nestle and Kellogg signed a pledge to stop advertising 'junk' food to children under 12.
In addition, the CIAA (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU) drew up some principals on advertising in 2004, which have been adopted by some companies. A spokesperson for the CIAA told FoodNavigator.com recently: "The food industry has demonstrated quite clearly that we are serious about tackling obesity."
However the IOTF and CI beg to differ, saying that such current self-regulatory proposals are mainly restricted to the EU and US, and only really cover children up to the age of 12 years.
"The CI and the IOFT believe these limitations do little to tackle the shocking increases in obesity and other diet-related diseases seen in the developed and developing world," they said.
In the developing world and emerging economies where newly affluent consumers have more disposable income to spend on non-traditional foods, Western-style eating is becoming more popular.
For instance, in India and China there is now more demand for meat and dairy ingredients, and prepared food products. Traditional eating habits there have been based around preparation from scratch in the home, using locally available ingredients.
In South East Asia 19.9 per cent of under-18s were overweight or obese in 2006; this is expected to rise to 28.2 per cent by 2010.
The IOTF and CI code covers "energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt". It calls for:
- A ban on TV and radio adverts promoting unhealthy food between 6am and 9pm
- No marketing of unhealthy food using new media, such as websites, social networking sites and text messaging;
- No promotion of unhealthy food in schools;
- No inclusion of free gifts, toys or other collectables that are attractive to children;
- No use of celebrities, cartoon characters or competitions.