Proposed International Code on Marketing of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children

May 27, 2008

Over the next 11 months, WHO is expected to begin work towards developing a set of recommendations on marketing of food products to children. Two international lobbying groups, The International Obesity Task Force (“IOTF”) and Consumers International, have jointly developed what they style The International Code on Marketing of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children. Their proposal, which would impose restrictions on such marketing, was presented to the World Health Assembly in April. These groups are critical of the industry generally, and skeptical about the efficacy of voluntary measures.

By its own terms, the Code is intended to govern “energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.” Its sponsors propose 1) a ban between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. on broadcast ads promoting foods such as these; 2) a ban on marketing them via Web sites, social networking sites, and text messaging; 3) a ban on their promotion in schools; 4) abolition of gifts, toys, and other promotional items attractive to children; and 5) discontinuing endorsements by celebrities, cartoon characters and the like, as well as contests designed to stimulate interest in children.

The UK has already restricted advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt on television programs and to children. The IOTF has questioned the effectiveness of the British approach, however, because after 9:00 pm it is no longer in effect. And criticisms notwithstanding, industry has already taken steps to limit marketing to children. In December, 2007, for example, Nestles, Kellogg’s and others signed a pledge to stop advertising so-called “junk” food to children under 12.

Whether advertising restrictions will change children’s consumption behaviors is debatable, especially where those restrictions are applied to ads not directed to a family’s decision makers. Assuming such restrictions do have an effect, however, voluntary restrictions may deserve more of a trial than industry critics seem willing to permit.