How the UN weighed in on food marketing + WFA Webinar


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“NCDs are 'the AIDS' of our generation”
Member of Young People's NCD Action Network, Moscow, April 2011

“The global burden and threat of non-communicable diseases constitutes one of the major challenges for development in the twenty-first century”
Political declaration of the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, New York, September 2011

For many around the world, the 1980s were filled with fear, ignorance and haunting images from government awareness campaigns for AIDS. So much so, that even the word triggers an immediate emotional response. So when someone announces a second coming, a killer on the same, or even greater scale, then you sit up and notice. And so we should.

The figures are compelling. Claiming 63% of all deaths, non-communicable diseases are currently the world's biggest killer. According to estimates, they will cost more than US$30 trillion over the next 20 years, representing 48% of global GDP in 2010, and push millions of people below the poverty line . A survey of business executives from around the world, conducted by the World Economic Forum since 2009, identified NCDs as one of the leading threats to global economic growth.

Little wonder that the United Nations called on Health Ministers and Heads of Government of the 193 UN member states to attend a summit in September in New York. It marks only the second time the UN General Assembly has ever addressed a topic of public health, coming a decade after it pledged to fight HIV/AIDS.

But what are NCDs and why are marketers implicated?
The four main non-communicable diseases are cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases and cardiovascular disease. They share four common risk factors: tobacco use, the harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity. Since poor nutrition and unhealthy lifestyles are seen to be a major cause of non-communicable diseases, the food industry is engaging with health regulators, civil society and other stakeholders with a view to demonstrating how it can be part of the solution in addressing these challenges.

The key output of the summit is a Political Declaration, which makes a number of references to food marketing. The general line is that member states should “reduce the impact of the marketing of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children” by means of a set of recommendations already developed and adopted by the World Health Organisation in May 2010. These recommendations provide governments with a blueprint for how to achieve this policy objective.

The industry supports these recommendations since they leave the door open to self-regulation as a means of achieving this objective. In Paragraph 22 of the 14-page recommendations lies the crux of the issue: “The defined policy may be implemented through a variety of approaches. Statutory regulation is one approach through which implementation and compliance are a legal requirement. Another approach is industry-led self-regulation, which covers whole industry sectors, for example the advertising sector, and can be independent of government regulation.”

This reference to self-regulation is a direct result of the food industry's ability to come together over the past few years, agree on a common food marketing policy to children, implement that policy and then monitor it globally and in a transparent fashion.

The World Health Organisation secretariat, the European Commission and a number of national governments have seen first-hand industry's willingness and ability to self-regulate when it comes to food marketing to children. But others will need more convincing.

“A whole-of-government and a whole-of-society effort”
As heads of state and health ministers boarded their respective planes in New York, they would have been under no illusions as to the enormity of the NCD challenge. Still ringing in their ears would be the general approaches to which they subscribed in the declaration: “a whole-of-government, whole-of-society effort”, “multi-stakeholder engagement” in order to build “collaborative partnerships.” But also the shrill calls by a number of activists for governments to avoid getting into bed with those seen to have an innate conflict of interest.

As Dr Margaret Chan, Director General of WHO, has made clear on a number of occasions, many Health Ministries simply don't trust industry as a partner. Many simply cannot reconcile the dual objectives of good health and healthy profit. So while they while sign up formally to engaging “non-health actors and key stakeholders, where appropriate, including the private sector and civil society,” this is no guarantee that, in the end, they will not regulate food marketing.

Focus goes national
So what has this all achieved? Where does this summit leave us now?
For all the talk of food marketing controls, only four countries have adopted statutory measures to restrict it over the past decade; Ireland, UK, South Korea and Taiwan. Many more are currently evaluating self-regulatory measures by industry or deliberating potential restrictions.

By having the UN General Assembly explicitly address the issue, the profile of NCDs will have been significantly raised amongst national regulators. The consequences of inaction have been spelt out in the most dramatic terms imaginable. And this, amongst a raft of policy reviews, will mean greater scrutiny of food marketing communications.

What's more, the Political Declaration calls on the WHO to develop by the end of 2012, a comprehensive global monitoring framework as well as recommendations for a set of voluntary global targets for the prevention and control of NCDs. The UN is keen to monitor progress and maintain political momentum for concrete action in the coming years. And they are not alone.

The UN declaration gives NGOs, such as the NCD Alliance, political leverage to galvanise action at local level. Amidst a storm of sensationalist headlines and hard campaigning, expect activists worldwide to advocate marketing restrictions with renewed vigour.

What next?
WFA held a webinar on this issue for members of WFA and Responsible Advertising Programme on November 24th November. The webinar looks at: What are the drivers behind this? What does this mean for food companies and national industry coalitions and how can you respond to this emerging challenge at national level?

The webinar focused on the background of the issue, the key driving forces, the WFA Blueprint for Responsible Food marketing Communications and a number of materials designed to help national industry coalitions respond to the challenge at local level.

For more information or to have access to the recorded webinar (WFA-members only), please contact Will Gilroy

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