The World Health Organization has decried marketing of unhealthy fast food as a "disastrously effective" culprit behind the child obesity epidemic.
The WHO Europe office announced on Tuesday that the agency is pushing for harsher rules when it comes to food marketing. Previous research has shown that highlighting foods high in trans fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt may make children more likely to become obese.
"Millions of children across the European Region are subjected to unacceptable marketing practices. Policy simply must catch up and address the reality of an obese childhood in the 21st century," Zsuzsanna Jakab, World Health Organization's regional director for Europe, said in a press release. "Children are surrounded by adverts urging them to consume foods high in fat, sugar and salt, even when they are in places where they should be protected, such as schools and sports facilities."
While all 53 member states in the European Region have agreed to limit marketing of foods that are unhealthy for kids, the WHO said they still only follow general advertising rules. They initially proposed guidelines in May 2010, and have updated them throughout the years. Denmark, France, Norway, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden are the only countries that have specifically addressed marketing food and drinks towards children with different regulations.
The WHO said that television was the main way that companies were reaching kids through advertising, and a lot of children watch TV more than two hours a day. Research has shown that children become obese by watching TV because they are not as active, but also because they are subjected to the advertising and marking of product high in fat, sugar and salt. Most of the ads are for soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, biscuits, confectionery, snack foods, ready meals and fast-food outlets.
In 2010, more than one third of U.S. children and adolescents were overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the last three decades.
Obesity as a child can set up a person for a lifetime of chronic disease including added risk factors for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, some kinds of cancer and osteoarthritis. But, the problems can start manifesting in childhood.
Children who recognize different food brands by the age of 4 are more likely to eat unhealthily and be overweight, the WHO added. Overweight children also respond more to branded food packaging, which may be feeding their increased mass size.
However, the U.K. trade group The Advertising Association, pointed out that there are already rules in place.
"Despite advertising's minimal role, there are strict content rules across all media in the UK to ensure food ads don't encourage unhealthy lifestyles - with an extra layer of protection for children. Effective self-regulation and a responsible industry will play important parts in helping to tackle obesity," they told the Guardian.
Health leaders will discuss further steps needed to be taken to address child obesity at a WHO conference on July 4 through 4 in Vienna, Austria.,