Assembly gets into wrangle over wording of junk food warning

British Medical Journal | June 2, 2007

A minor tussle over language broke out at this year’s meeting of the World Health Assembly, the annual forum through which the World Health Organization is governed by its member states.

After the much debated adoption in 2004 of WHO’s global strategy on diet, physical activity, and health, this year’s assembly turned to the question of implementation.

This was to be carried out under the global strategy on non-communicable diseases. Norway introduced a resolution calling for the development of a “code” that would promote responsible marketing to children of foods and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, and salt content. But the United States objected to the word “code,” and ensuing discussions resulted in a revised text that substituted the phrase “a set of recommendations.”

Although some observers interpret both formulations to be voluntary, the US felt that a code could possibly be construed as binding.

The move is a response to the increasingly wily marketing of “low nutrient” foods (otherwise known as “snack” or junk foods) to children in the developed and the developing world. Mobile phones and the internet offer new marketing opportunities, as does marketing in schools. “The whole nature of marketing to children has gone high tech,” said Neville Rigby of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. “It’s invisible now. As a parent, you’re not safe just because you turn off the television.”

Norway’s original resolution had the support of several countries, including Brazil, Thailand, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Poland, and South Africa (which spoke for 46 African countries).

Arne-Petter Sanne, a member of the Norwegian delegation and a director at the Norwegian Directorate of Health and Social Affairs, said, “We thought it very important to have something explicitly on marketing to children. The US was the only country that spoke against the original resolution, but we are still very happy with the outcome. For us this is a 98% victory.”

The next step for WHO will be to review the existing mechanisms governing marketing to children, ranging from industry self regulation to various models of legislation. Timothy Armstrong, team leader of WHO’s global strategy on diet, physical activity, and health, said, “What we haven’t yet seen is the effect of any of these mechanisms.”