EU Obesity Action Plan recognizes EU pledge but calls for more


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On 26 February, the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity was launched in Athens at a Conference on Health and Physical Activity organized by the Greek Presidency of the EU. The Action Plan, which aims to halt the rise in overweight and obesity in children and young people (0-18 years) by 2020, includes operational objectives on food and beverage marketing to children. These include the development of national recommendations to limit food marketing to children, based on consolidated nutrition criteria developed by governments; the extension of the EU Pledge beyond its current scope; and the elimination of food marketing in schools. The Plan, developed by the EU High Level Group on Nutrition and Physical Activity (HLG – national health ministry representatives), did not receive the support of The Netherlands and Sweden, on the grounds that the Action Plan lacks cross-border elements and the proposed actions should therefore fall under Member State responsibility, not EU competence.

The Action Plan estimates that the burden of disease related to obesity accounts for an average of 7% of national health budgets and causes 2.8 million deaths per year in the EU. Among the determinants of obesity, the Action Plan asserts that “young people in the EU now consume more fast-food and sugar-sweetened beverages, eat outside the home more frequently and spend less time eating family meals”, and that “prepared and processed foods are more accessible than ever before and in larger portion sizes”.

The Plan recognizes the importance of a “whole of society” approach and acknowledges the role of the private sector in contributing through voluntary action and multi-stakeholder approaches. Among other things, it calls on the European Commission to maintain the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health as a key plank of the EU Nutrition Strategy and on stakeholders to make further commitments in that context. In consequence, it was agreed during the meeting that stakeholders would be given an additional 4 months, until the next High Level Group meeting in June 2014, to contribute to the Action Plan.

The Plan's 8 priority areas for action include “Restricting marketing and advertising to children”. Citing research that links exposure to food advertising to the development of unhealthy dietary preferences and adiposity, the Plan calls for stepped up Member State action in this area. While the document cites the World Federation of Advertisers and the EU Pledge as a relevant self-regulatory initiative, it asks that such commitments “continue to be reviewed and strengthened.” In particular, they should “include not only TV but all marketing elements, including in-store environments, promotional actions, internet presence and social media activities.”

Key operational objectives include:
  • Ensure that schools are free from marketing of less healthy food and drink options (target: Less than 5 % of schools reporting “violation”, annually per Member State)
  • Define consolidated nutrition criteria to restrict food marketing to children (target: Consolidated nutrition criteria by 2016 at latest [presumably EU-wide])
  • Set recommendations for marketing foods “via TV, internet, sport events etc”, focused on children “especially under 12 years” – “this could be done in collaboration with stakeholders, e.g. as part of the EU Pledge (target: 30 % of Member States with recommendations)
  • Encourage media service providers to set up stricter codes of conduct on audiovisual commercial communications to children regarding foods which are less healthy food options (target: 80 % of Member States with fully implemented Directive on Audiovisual Media Services)

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