Deborah Chen | Role of marketing unhealthy foods to children
With all the increased coverage surrounding the recent announcement of Health Minister Christopher Tufton’s key health initiatives for 2022-23, including highlights around policy reforms to curb the skyrocketing rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), why not shed some light on another issue that has been plaguing Jamaica for quite some time? The marketing of unhealthy foods targeting children globally and locally, which has grown drastically over the years. Every day, children are exposed to and enticed by enthralling food- marketing ads where they live learn and play - on TV, at school, in stores, on mobile devices, and online.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and other major health organisations worldwide point to pervasive unhealthy food marketing as a significant risk factor for childhood obesity. Food marketing that targets children can have lifelong consequences, including contributing to the already exacerbated overweight and obesity trends. The latest Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey 2016-2017 shows that more than half of the Jamaican population (54 per cent) is overweight or obese. Even worse is that a comparison between the 2010 and the 2017 Global School-based Student Health Surveys shows an alarming increase in the figures for boys and girls aged 13-15 by 68 per cent. One can only imagine what the statistics will reflect proceeding the COVID-19 era, where we have witnessed the snowballing of food marketing since much of our learning environment has transitioned to the virtual world.
PROTECT CHILDREN’S HEALTH AND RIGHTS
With the upsurge in the rates of overweight and obesity in our children, what better do we expect to come, with the multiplicity of tantalising ads plastered across our television screens, newspapers, social media platforms, and on signs, posters, and billboards in and around our schools? It is imperative that we acknowledge that our children are extremely vulnerable to food marketing and the tactics employed to lure them. Most of this marketing is of ultra-processed products and fast foods with a high content of saturated fats, trans fats, and added sugar or salt/sodium. These ads are highly impressionable and can strongly influence children’s eating patterns by increasing their current and future food consumption.
Research has shown that consumption of these foods is highly addictive, making it harder to curb unhealthy eating habits. After all, this highlights the need for comprehensive marketing restrictions!
Protecting Jamaican children and adolescents from unhealthy food marketing is a most cost-effective way to improve their chances of living longer, healthier lives while simultaneously reducing the soaring healthcare costs associated with NCDs. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states our children’s fundamental right to a healthy childhood, free from economic exploitation. Article 24, Section 2(c) states: “To combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary health care, through, inter alia, the application of readily available technology and through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.”
The constant exposure to unhealthy food and beverage marketing misaligns with the recommended diet for children and is grossly unfair and exploitative. It also undermines parental, school, community, and governmental efforts to raise healthy children and prevent overweight, obesity, and costly chronic diseases, which Jamaica already grapples with.
A STITCH IN TIME…
Based on numerous research findings and the growing concern, multiple countries have employed strategies to limit the effects of food commercials on children and their eating behaviours and overall health. According to a 2017 report by Mapa Nutricional, Chile once had one of the highest rates of obesity prevalence globally, with nearly 25 per cent of children aged six to seven years being obese. Chile’s comprehensive Law of Food Labelling and Advertising of 2016 included a restriction on the marketing of foods high in calories, saturated fats, salt, and sugar to children under 14 (including television, website, radio, and magazine ads). These foods are also restricted from being marketed within schools. Cartoons, toys, and colouring material included in these ads or as marketing aids are also restricted. The country witnessed a reduction in the number of unhealthy food television advertisements seen (pre-schoolers saw 44 per cent less and adolescents saw 58 per cent less advertisements), and a 28 per cent reduction in the number of products high in salt, fat, and sugar with marketing to children on the package.
Similar measures have also been implemented in Canada under the Quebec Consumer Protection Act, prohibiting commercial advertising directed at children under 13 years of age. Quebec’s restrictions on advertising to children have been shown to have a positive impact on nutrition through the reduction in fast-food consumption and decreased rates of overweight/obesity. The first study conducted since the ban, in 2008, showed that the combined overweight/obesity rate was significantly below the national level in Québec (23 per cent compared to 26 per cent). Subsequent data from a 2011 study showed a reduction in fast-food consumption in Québec by 13 per cent, with 22 million less fast-food meals eaten, and a decrease in fast food purchases by US $88million per year. Québec also has the lowest rates of obesity among five to 17-year-olds as well as the highest rates of vegetable and fruit consumption in Canada.
These types of results are now being used across the region and globally to inform and support the development of new policies on child-directed unhealthy food marketing.
URGENT ACTION TO PROTECT CHILDREN’S HEALTH
Amid calls in the press for NCDs to be declared an emergency, and if we wish to ensure a healthy future for our children and Jamaica, we must act now! Healthy food policies have always been regarded as key tools in the fight against NCDs. The available evidence on the efficacy of comprehensive marketing regulations, coupled with policies for front-of-package warning labels (FOPWLs), a national school nutrition policy and fiscal measures such as a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, may prove worthwhile in Jamaica’s struggle with NCDs and help to lessen the burden on our health sector and the wider economy.
It is also important for us to recognise and accept that the implementation of policies will naturally take some time to produce desired results. Nonetheless, evidence shows that they work! So let’s not lose sight of the goals that we have for creating a healthier and more sustainable Jamaican population.
Let us also acknowledge the plethora of evidence that suggests that partial measures are ineffective and easy for the industry to work around. Strict regulations with real enforcement and consequences are imperative to reduce our children’s exposure to harmful food and beverage marketing. Current statistics and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic signal the need for more and stronger statutory policies with wide coverage across all marketing channels and clear nutritional standards. A comprehensive approach and the definition of sound policies are key to ensuring and maintaining the protection of our children and towards reversing the trends of childhood obesity and securing the health of the next generations.
Deborah Chen is the executive director of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.