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WHO Calls For Measures to Counter Child Obesity

  • Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization is calling for action to end the epidemic of child obesity by reducing marketing of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children. The WHO has just issued new measures to improve child health.

The World Health Organization says children worldwide are exposed to marketing of foods high in fat, sugar or salt. And, this, it says increases the potential of younger generations developing non-communicable diseases during their lives.

WHO reports non-communicable diseases account for 60 percent of deaths worldwide. That comes to more than 35 million people annually. A majority of these deaths are occurring in low and middle-income countries.

Health officials cite poor diet as one of the four common factors leading to cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and chronic lung diseases. It says they are responsible for more than nine million premature deaths.

Coordinator of WHO’s surveillance and prevention program, Tim Armstrong, says one of the risk factors, obesity, is a growing problem among children in the poorer countries.

“Currently, there are 42 million children under the age of five who are overweight or obese…For me, the pressing issue here is that…35 million of those 42 million are living in low and middle-income countries and that is a huge issue, as you can imagine, for the member states and WHO as we look forward to how we will deal with the resulting disease and burden that these overweight children as they become overweight adults will create,” Armstrong said.

Palantina Toelupe is Director-General of Health of Samoa, a small island state of 180,000 in the Pacific. She says most of the population is fat and obese due to modernization and life style changes.

She says non-communicable diseases, or NCD’s, now are the leading cause of death among adults in Samoa. And this is likely to get worse as obesity is a growing problem in children.

“We are already very concerned because we have a very overweight and sick population from NCD (non-communicable diseases) for adults and now we are expecting to deal with pediatric problems that are NCD related…We also have to deal with multi-nationals even though we are very small, small scale,” said Toelupe. “But, it is the same thing. We have no way of competing with multi-nationals on the media with regards to advertisements and the influence that they impose on our children.”

The World Health Organization blames television advertising for a large share of the marketing of unhealthy foods. It says there is evidence advertisements influence children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns.

At last May’s World Health Assembly, member states endorsed a new set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children.

The recommendations call for national and international action to limit children’s exposure to marketing messages that promote foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugars or salt.

WHO says governments must lead this process through legislation restricting harmful marketing practices directed toward children.