Global Push Behind New Efforts to Curb Childhood Obesity

World Health Organization Joins Fight Against Marketing Unhealthful Food to Children

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Food marketers have long kept a watchful eye on the halls of Congress and Beltway agencies that regulate how their products are sold and advertised. Might they soon have to keep tabs on Geneva too?

The United Nations, through its Switzerland-based World Health Organization, has slowly been edging its way into the marketing arena, pushing new guidelines for its 193-member countries that the international body says are needed to control the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

It's a "totally new type of challenge for marketers," said Stephan Loerke, managing director for the Brussels-based World Federation of Advertisers, which represents advertising associations on five continents. "In the past you would deal with these types of issues at a national level with government. Here you actually have an issue which is global in nature."

The World Health Organization has been zeroing in on obesity prevention for years, but took on new influence last year when it adopted 12 recommended actions for its member states aimed at curbing marketing of unhealthful food to children. One proposal says nations "should consider different approaches" to "reduce marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt, to children." Another recommends keeping marketing of such foods "away from settings where children gather" such as nurseries and schools.

The WHO does not have the power to compel members to comply. And the recommendations, for the most part, are high-level goals that seem to allow flexibility for countries to tailor initiatives to their needs. Still, there's "a sort of moral pressure" to act, Mr. Loerke said, and "there's an expectation that this is being taken seriously." His group has been hard at work lobbying for industry-led regulations, rather than government mandates.

"We feel that we've been able to have a good dialogue with WHO after an initial stage which was more difficult," he said. "They have accepted that the industry was generally interested in collaborating with them and the industry was able to do self-regulation in a manner which generated real results."

The WHO will give a report on implementation in May 2012. The U.S. government has endorsed the effort. Indeed, anti-obesity programs have become a major focus of the Obama administration, including first lady Michelle Obama, whose "Let's Move!" campaign aims to solve the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.

One of the more significant efforts -- and the one getting the most attention in adland -- was initiated by Congress in 2009. The initiative is called the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children and is being led by the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Secretary of Agriculture.

In late 2009, the group issued a one-page sheet of tentative, proposed standards that have been widely criticized by the ad industry as overly aggressive and unworkable. For one, the standards apply to marketing to children ages 2 to 17, which would expand the traditional definition of children currently set at under the age of 12 for such matters, said Dan Jaffe, exec VP-government relations for the Association of National Advertisers. Secondly, the nutrition rules for what can be marketed to children are too strict, industry leaders say. Mr. Jaffe said that as written, the rules would prohibit the advertising of "substantially all fruit juices" and "most peanut butter," for example.

Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC, told Ad Age that "we certainly heard from the food industry that they thought the proposal was extreme and would allow only very, very few products they currently market to kids to be marketed to kids." The FTC has noted the concerns and "that's something that's been considered," she said. The agency is finalizing a proposal and hopes to put it out for comment in the "next couple of months," she said.

The final report will be presented to Congress, but won't carry the weight of law unless lawmakers act. And with the House now controlled by conservative Republicans, that seems doubtful. Still, the report itself could lead to action, Mr. Jaffe said. "If important agencies say this is important to be considered," he said, "we could consider it."

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