New WHO report calls for action against harmful online food marketing

According to the World Health Organization, food marketing can significantly influence children’s food and beverage preferences and choices.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
Children enjoy yellow leaves of ginkgo trees at Jingu Gaien, the outer garden of Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo.

A new report by the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe (WHO/Europe) urges policy makers to implement regulation reducing children’s exposure to digital marketing of foods high in fats, salt, and sugar. The publication, Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives, examines the latest information on changes in food and beverage marketing to children. Authors found as media use among children has risen, food companies have also shifted their marketing efforts to the digital media landscape, where there is little or no effective regulation.

According to the WHO, food marketing can significantly influence children’s food and beverage preferences and choices, contributing to an obesogenic environment. Children are exposed to advertising through various platforms such as advergames, social media, movies, and peer influences. Companies use sophisticated techniques to target and tailor digital marketing to individuals, using geolocation data from mobile phones to deliver real-time ads and collect personal data and partnering with digital gaming companies to encourage players to visit restaurants.

“Allowing advertisers and the food industry to market products high in salt, fats and sugars to children through digital platforms with inadequate regulation can have huge health and economic consequences,” says Dr. Gauden Galea, Director of the Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course at WHO/Europe.

Rates of childhood obesity found through WHO European region have risen steadily, with 25 percent of school-aged children in Europe currently overweight or obese. According to the WHO, childhood obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, orthopedic problems, mental disorders, underachievement in school, and lower self-esteem. The WHO calls for immediate action by governments to limit children’s exposure to digital marketing with age ranges and types of marketing clearly defined.

“We consistently find that children – our most vulnerable group – are exposed to countless numbers of hidden digital marketing techniques promoting foods high in fat, sugar, and salt,” says Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “This report makes clear the effect of such marketing on our children. It is the responsibility of policy-makers to recognize the new threat presented by digital marketing of food to children and to act swiftly.”

This story originally appeared on Food Tank.

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