EU health ministers criticise efforts to tackle obesity and call for more regulation

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Europe’s health ministers have called for tougher laws on advertising of junk food to children, especially online and via social media.

Members of the employment, social policy, health and consumer affairs council (EPSCO) said there is “ample evidence to justify more effective actions on marketing of foods which are high in energy, saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugar and salt”.

They also criticised the self-regulatory approach: “Experience and evidence point to the fact that voluntary action may require regulatory measures in order to be more effective.”

Ineffective

In new guidelines to tackle obesity – agreed at a meeting today June 16 – EPSCO called on member states to address both the lack of physical activity and unhealthy diets.

Obesity has become one of the most pressing public health challenges of the 21st century and the council has concluded that existing policies aimed at tackling childhood obesity “have not been sufficiently effective”.

Indeed, one in three adolescents in Europe is overweight or obese, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation.

More research is needed in order to better understand the drivers of childhood overweight and obesity, the council noted, but the issue should feature “high on the agenda” of individual member states and of the EU.

This echoes comments made by the European health commissioner recently – Vytenis Andriukaitis called for “political support at the highest level” and offered his support for sugar taxes.

The council’s paper doesn’t mention levies but countries should make better use of labelling rules – in particular the food information to consumers regulation – to encourage consumers to choose healthy options. Education and information campaigns are also needed to help people understand on pack nutritional information.

Advertising in the spotlight

However, it is restrictions to advertising that ministers have honed in on. The introduction of codes of conduct is encouraged but legislative measures should be considered “where appropriate”.

In particular, the focus of member states and the European Commission should be online “where communication messages are often more targeted at individual children and more difficult to monitor”.

Countries should also “monitor and report” the impact of the measures they take to reduce exposure to marketing, the council noted.

Whether self-regulation is working remains a moot point. WHO has said that digital marketing offers a “loophole” for brands to push junk food to children. But advertisers maintain the current, industry-led approach is working and that rules are being updated to account for changes in the way children consume media.

Current draft proposals for the reform of the audiovisual media services directive lean heavily towards self-regulation, which has angered campaigners. 

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