January 29, 2016
2 min read

WHO: Sugar tax, reduced exposure to unhealthy foods may cut childhood obesity

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The Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity recently recommended numerous global policy changes, such as sugar taxes and limits on marketing unhealthy food to children, in response to the increasing levels of worldwide childhood obesity, according to a report presented at the WHO Executive Board Meeting.

“The obesity epidemic has the potential to negate many of the health benefits that have contributed to the increased longevity observed in the world,” Sir Peter David Gluckman, MBChB, MMedSc, DSc, the commission’s co-chairman, and colleagues wrote. “To date, progress in tackling childhood obesity has been slow and inconsistent.”

Peter Gluckman

Sir Peter David Gluckman

According to the report, at least 41 million children aged younger than 5 years are obese or overweight, with the highest risk in children from low- and middle-income countries. This number has increased significantly since 1990, from 31 million to 41 million in 2014. During this span, the overall number of overweight children from middle- and low-income countries has more than doubled, from 7.5 million to 15.5 million. Forty-eight percent of the world’s obese and overweight children aged younger than 5 years reside in Asia, while another 25% are from Africa.

The commission’s report — compiled during a 2-year period and after consultation with more than 100 WHO member states — proposed several recommendations, including implementation of an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and unhealthy foods. According to the report, sugar-sweetened beverages increase the risk for obesity, particularly among children from low-income families. The authors suggest that due to limited income for this population, a tax may be most effective, while also creating an opportunity for an indirect educational public health message to the entire population.

“It is not sufficient to rely on nutrient labeling or simple codes such as traffic light labels or health star ratings,” Gluckman and colleagues wrote. “The commission believes there is sufficient rationale to warrant the introduction of an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.”

The report also recommended limiting children’s exposure to advertising related to unhealthy foods and beverages. The authors suggest removing marketing materials for unhealthy food and beverages from child-focused settings, such as schools and sports events. Recommendations also included removing advertising of unhealthy products from screen-based offerings produced primarily for children.

“There is unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages is related to childhood obesity,” Gluckman and colleagues wrote. “Any attempt to tackle childhood obesity should, therefore, include a reduction in exposure of children to, and the power of, marketing.”

Other key recommendations include:

  • developing nutrient profiles for quick and easy identification of unhealthy foodstuffs;
  • implementing a standardized global nutrient labeling system;
  • requiring school settings to offer healthy food options;
  • increasing access to healthy foods among disadvantaged communities;
  • promoting physical activity through programs aimed at reducing sedentary behavior; and
  • increasing access to preconception and prenatal care.

The authors wrote that these findings indicate a drastic change is needed to improve the health of this generation and future children. According to the report, commitment to long-term investment by governments worldwide is required to accomplish the commission’s recommendations.

“Increased political commitment is needed to tackle the global challenge of childhood overweight and obesity,” Gluckman said in a press release. “WHO needs to work with governments to implement a wide range of measures that address the environmental causes of obesity and overweight, and help give children the healthy start to life they deserve.” – by David Costill

Disclosure: Relevant financial disclosures were unavailable at time of publication.