South Africa is commemorating Child Protection Week under the theme: “Let Us Protect All Children to Move South Africa Forward”. South Africa has one of the highest rates of poverty inequality and the question to ask ourselves is whether our children are protected from obesity and non-communicable diseases due to poor nutrition? The food and beverage industry intentionally target children who are too young to distinguish advertising from truth and entices them with high-calorie, fat, salt, sugar and low-nutrient but highly profitable junk foods. Companies have succeeded so well in this effort that business-as-usual cannot be allowed to continue.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), advertising and other forms of food and beverage marketing to children are widespread across the world and in South Africa specifically, and are influencing children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns. A significant amount of this marketing is for products with high fat, sugar or salt content, the overconsumption of which may increase the risk of overweight, obesity and certain non-communicable diseases. Unhealthy food and beverage marketing increases dietary intake and influences dietary preferences in children during or shortly after exposure to advertisements.
South Africa has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, with WHO estimating that by 2016 over 340 million children aged 5-19 were diagnosed as obese or overweight. The condition is growing at a faster rate among children than adults.
It is to be noted that overweight and obese children are at higher risk of developing serious health problems including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory problems and sleep disorders. They may also suffer from psychological effects, such as low self-esteem, depression and social isolation. Obese children grow into obese adults with increased risk of premature death and disability in adulthood.
It is therefore of concern to HEALA when basic rights like the right to access healthy food, are compromised. The big retail has monopolised the food security space and are dictating the food we eat. This week HEALA calls for collective action to protect children from the marketing of unhealthy food by the industry.
The food industries are targeting children with intense and incentivised junk food and sugary drinks marketing and continues to spend billions of rand promoting unhealthy foods virtually everywhere kids live and go. The children and youth are important to marketers because they influence their parents’ buying decisions, some have their own purchasing power, and they are the adult consumers of the future.
Big Food industry may say they are on the side of health, but their intended actions and conduct clearly demonstrate that they are only driven by greed and profit. The industry is failing in its morale, legal obligation and accountability to protect children from unhealthy food marketing exposure.
The WHO’s 2013 policy recommends that interventions need to focus on creating an environment to support healthy diets. Interventions needed to achieve this include policies that promote healthier food choices, such as marketing restrictions, unhealthy food taxes and food labelling. The final report of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity recommended population-level policies to restrict the marketing of foods to children and implementation of a sugary beverage tax.
Similarly, the 2018 report by the UN interagency task force on NCDs proposed a number of solutions such as encouraging food reformulation laws, introduction of food labelling regulations, imposing taxes on foods and beverages high in fat, salt and/or sugar to discourage consumption, supporting subsidies of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and legumes, and restricting the marketing of unhealthy products to children.
The policies need to be aimed towards creating a supportive environment that creates positive changes amongst young children. One forms food preferences at a young age, and if an environment for healthy preference learning is created at a young age this can be beneficial throughout the lifecycle.
We need to invest more resources to realise the right to access nutritious food in South Africa, to assess whether the National Policy on Food and Nutrition Security (NFNSP) is adequate to ensure food security at a household level and to identify problems with current policies and the implementation, which result in a lack of real access to nutritious food for families, particularly children, in the country.
South Africa needs to urgently implement the WHO’s recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children. The recommendations are structured into the following five sections: Rationale, Policy Development, Policy Implementation, Policy Monitoring and Evaluation and Research, endorsed by the World Health Assembly and aimed at reducing the impact of marketing foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt. The recommendations guide efforts by member states in designing new and/or strengthening existing policies on food marketing communications to children in order to reduce the impact of marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
It’s time to stand up to big food companies and protect the health of South African children. Protecting children from violent, exploitative, abusive behaviour through underage marketing by food industry is not only a basic value, but also an obligation of the state as enshrined in the Constitution of the republic.
The country needs vigilant actions directed at tackling the industry free-way marketing activities targeted at children. To slow down the rate of obesity amongst children in South Africa, we need to hold the food industry accountable for unlawful and unethical marketing behaviours. HEALA will continue to campaign with all progressive forces to ensure enforceable policy guidelines on food and beverages to prevent marketing to children are implemented in the country. HEALA will continue with evidence-based campaigns and promote policies that can curb the obesity and non-communicable disease epidemics which are reaching crisis level in our country.
Lawrence Mbalati is a Programmes Manager at the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA).