The International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) recently published an EU-funded briefing paper titled A Junk-Free Childhood: Responsible Standards for Marketing Foods and Beverages to Children, which claims that “food company competition” has undermined corporate pledges to cease youth marketing efforts. Part of IASO’s StanMark Project, the report compares several company-led voluntary initiatives, expressing concern that self-regulation is allegedly inconsistent, insufficiently monitored and weakly enforced. In particular, IASO noted that youth marketing pledges varied as to (i) “which foods are being promoted to children”; (ii) “when advertisements can be broadcast on television”; (iii) “what is meant by a ‘child’”; and (iv) “how the Internet should be regulated.”

“Among the voluntary pledges, we found a wide range of nutrition criteria describing what the industry would voluntarily restrict,” said one author in a June 30, 2011, IASO press release. “We found disagreement concerning what age the rules should apply, and whether or not company-owned Websites should be included in self-regulations… Companies can now use new technologies to encourage children to market to each other and by-pass any parental controls.”  

IASO is also concerned about the ability of national authorities to regulate cross-border marketing, especially when Internet access “is largely unmediated.” It is advocating universal standards that would incorporate the 63rd World Health Assembly’s recommendations to reduce the exposure of children to the marketing of foods or beverages “high in saturated or trans fat, free sugars or salt (HSTFSS).” According to IASO, these cross-border rules would (i) confine food and beverage promotions to those products which meet the dietary standards laid out by the World Health Organization’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health; (ii) limit marketing to “those persons who have reached an age when they are legally considered to be competent enough to protect their own welfare”; (ii) cover “all media which carry marketing messages as well as those which cross national borders”; (iv) exclude techniques—including the use of cartoon characters, animation and celebrities—“with special appeal to children and adolescents”; (v) treat brands with recognizable links to food and beverage products” as if they were promotions; (vi) prohibit food and beverage advertising in “all settings where children gather”; and (vii) “hold all parties involved in conveying a marketing message to be accountable.” See The Daily Mail, June 30, 2011.