GENEVA (Reuters) - Health ministers, alarmed at the growing number of obese children, agreed on Thursday to try to reduce children’s consumption of junk food and soft drinks by asking member states to restrict advertising and marketing.
The global recommendations on marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children are guidelines to the 193 member states of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Diets containing large amounts of fat, sugar or salt contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancers, which cause 60 percent of all deaths worldwide, the United Nations agency says.
“Childhood obesity is increasing globally now. The rate of increase in the developing world is greatest because of a rapid change in diet and physical activity patterns,” Timothy Armstrong of WHO’s department of chronic disease and health promotion told Reuters.
An estimated 42 million children under the age of five are overweight, 35 million of them in developing countries, according to the WHO. Overweight is one category below obese.
“The risks presented by unhealthy diets start in childhood and build up throughout life,” the WHO guidelines say.
Armstrong credited the United States with ringing the alarm bell. “The global attention to child obesity has changed significantly, with the new U.S. administration taking it on as a major issue.”
U.S. Surgeon-General Regina Benjamin endorsed the plan at the WHO’s annual ministerial meeting.
“The set of recommendations on marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children should play a significant role in helping member states promote healthier patterns of eating as part of efforts to reduce the growing epidemic of childhood obesity,” Benjamin said in a speech.
“This is a priority for the Obama administration, in particular for the First Lady, who has raised awareness of childhood obesity and the importance of healthy eating.”
Michelle Obama this month unveiled a 70-point plan for reducing childhood obesity within a generation, including a call for marketing healthier food, but stopping short of recommending regulatory action or a federal tax on sugary sodas.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say two thirds of American adults and 15 percent of American children are overweight or obese.
“Since 1980, our obesity rates have doubled for adults and tripled for children,” Benjamin told a news briefing on Tuesday. “The problem is even worse for blacks, Hispanics and native American children.”
The WHO recommendations include limiting children’s exposure to television advertising and making schools and playgrounds free from all forms of marketing of junk food and sugary drinks.
WHO adopted a global strategy on diet and physical activity in 2004, a year after clinching a treaty controlling tobacco.
On Thursday, ministers also agreed to curb binge drinking and other growing forms of excessive alcohol use through higher taxes on alcoholic drinks and tighter marketing regulations.
Editing by Jonathan Lynn