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Junk food: curbing direct marketing to children

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THE DECREE: The European Charter on Counteracting Obesity wants producers to reduce the amount of added fat, sugar and salt in their products.
THE DECREE: The European Charter on Counteracting Obesity wants producers to reduce the amount of added fat, sugar and salt in their products.

R. PRASAD

Strong evidence has been found to show that marketing greatly influences children's food preferences and consumption pattern

THE ABILITY of even a three-year-old child to identify and use pester-power to force its parents to buy a product should not surprise many. After all, marketing to children is an art that companies have mastered long ago. Unfortunately, some of the products marketed to children do not augur well for the society and individuals alike. McDonald's Barbie dressed up as a McDonald's clerk feeds French fries, burgers and Sprite to Kelly (Barbie's kid sister) in a restaurant play set. This and many other examples cited by the Washington DC based Center for Science in the Public Interest show the many ways by which companies get children hooked on to junk food even at an early age.High intake of calorie-rich junk food combined with a sedentary lifestyle has led to increasing number of overweight and obese children and adults in many developed countries and some developing countries as well. Many obese individuals have been found to suffer from diabetes and cardio vascular diseases. Companies that reaped great dividends through direct marketing to children are now beginning to find themselves at the receiving end. Nearly coinciding with the European Charter on Counteracting Obesity making producers of junk food and other stakeholders equally responsible for counteracting obesity, Britain announced a series of measures to curb direct marketing of junk food to children under 16 years of age.

Blanket ban

A blanket ban has been imposed on television advertising during children's programmes and on children's channels as well as those aired during adult programmes that are watched by a large number of children. The ban also applies to the use of celebrities and cartoon heroes for promoting the products to children. It would translate to children seeing 41 per cent fewer junk food advertisements. The measures proposed by the Office of Communications, Britain's television regulator, will come into effect before the end of January next year.The European Charter has stressed that junk food producers should not exploit the "credulity" of children by "commercial activities." And it also wanted the producers to reduce the amount of added fat, sugar and salt in their products. There is already some good news to cheer about. A November 18 report online in the British Medical Journal reports that nine soft drink companies in Europe have pledged "not to advertise their products to children under 12 years" of age. There is a wealth of information to link the effect of direct marketing of unhealthy food and the eating habits of children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, which was entrusted with the responsibility of finding the effect of direct marketing of junk food to children and the rising obesity levels in 2004 came out with some startling findings.

Strong evidence

The findings published in a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that "marketing strongly influences children's food preferences, requests and consumption" and found strong evidence to link some forms of marketing and an increasing risk of becoming obese. It also stated that American children spend nearly $30 billion of their money on buying junk food every year. With 1.6 times greater possibility of becoming obese when children consume just one can of cola every day, according to a report in the journal Lancet, the impact of $30 billion spent by children on such junk food is anybody's guess.The move by Britain is likely to have a heavy financial impact on junk food producers; it would stand to lose $78 million in revenue per annum. But such stiff measures are indeed needed considering the high mortality and morbidity rate and increasing economic burden caused by diabetes and cardio vascular diseases. After all, the body gets primed to become obese when children start eating unhealthy food at a very young age. Weaning them away from such junk food is a sure way to a healthier adult life. Childhood obesity is more a marketing-induced phenomenon. Britain following the footsteps of Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and 50 other countries is setting a good example for many developed and developing countries to emulate.

Equal responsibility

If `catch them young' is the mantra of the junk food manufacturers, weaning them away from these foods should be everybody's responsibility. The message `bid goodbye to sedentary lifestyle and junk food, bid goodbye to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases' seems to be finally catching on.As pressure mounts in many developed countries, companies will be compelled to shift the focus to countries with less stringent controls. The national programme on non-communicable diseases launched by the Indian Government is a laudable effort and should surely be able to resist any such moves.


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