Non communicable diseases such as childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are rapidly plaguing the health of youngsters while many health critics claim that advertising unhealthy food, targeting school children is the root cause for such ailments. Speaking at a seminar titled “Unethical and Harmful Food Advertising and Promotion” organized by the Sri Lanka Medical Association, President of SLMA Dr. Jennifer Perera said that food industries have developed a special interest towards children in an attempt to promote their food and beverages. The event was insightful about how children as much as adults are deliberately led, to fall prey to unhealthy food trends that are high in calories, carbohydrates and fat. In addition to the SLMA, representatives from the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians, the Sri Lanka College of Endocrinologists, the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka, Diabetes Association of Sri Lanka and the Family Health Bureau from the Ministry of Health also shared vital information concerning this issue.

Recent studies conducted by medical specialists have indicated an epidemic rise in the rate of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure among people. Statistics indicate close to 15% of children in urban suburbs are either overweight or obese whereas obesity among adults has increased three fold during the last two decades. It has also been docume l literature that the chances of early onset of diabetes and childhood obesity are high and unless feasible measures are taken by responsible authorities to curb the situation, many kids will be vulnerable to chronic illnesses when they reach their adult life. In an attempt to eliminate the threats of non communicable diseases that may overshadow the lives of the future generation, the SLMA has taken the initiation to call upon certain measures to be enacted by responsible authorities.

Accordingly, the SLMA calls upon the Government to strengthen legislation that will restrict food advertising and promotion aimed at children and bring in new provisions in the statute to prevent the use of children in advertisements of foods and beverages. This also includes a request made by the Government to the Ministry of Education to prohibit all types of undesirable food promotion activities in schools and the public to be vigilant and report unethical food advertisements aimed at children to the Consumer Affairs Authority and the Ministry of Health. “The food industry must be more socially responsible and refrain from all types of unethical food and beverage advertising. It is equally important that the media and advertising agencies must conform to stringent ethical standards regarding food and beverage advertising and refrain from claims being made which are not scientifically tenable” SLMA added.

“Media support a prerequisite to curb unhealthy food advertising”

– SLMA President Dr. Jennifer Perera

“We need the support of the media to circumvent the impact of industrial advertisements with regard to food which are not always accurate in their content and sometimes the target populations are also not suitable for such advertising. We all know that there is a problem of high rates of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease which are rampant in Sri Lanka and it is increasing day by day.
The population of Sri Lanka is likely to inadvertently take note of these advertisements and tend to change their life style and food consumption patterns according to them. They would practise what was promoted through these advertising companies. Therefore it is our duty as health professionals as well as your duty as media professionals to reach out to combat this problem of incorrect information with regard to food advertising that reaches the general public.

Doctors make a very small proportion of the general public and therefore the public should be able to take responsibility of their own health and unless we help them to receive the correct information, this will be a very difficult task for all health professionals. So we are seeking the help of the media; this is a call for help for you to reach out to the public in a most ethical and correct manner. As the President of the SLMA we are suggesting the following recommendations. We are making these recommendations to the Government to strengthen legislation that would restrict food advertising and promotion targeting children and to bring new provisions in the statute to prevent the use of children in advertisement of food and beverages. Thirdly, the Government to request the Ministry of Education to prohibit all types of undesirable food promotion activities in school. We know that this is taking place under our own eyes. When you publicize a school conducting such promotional activities, other schools also reach the food industries to conduct similar programmes in their facilities. It is a vicious cycle. Fourthly, the public must be vigilant and report unethical food advertisements and promotion of inapt children in advertisements to the Consumer Affairs Authority and the Ministry of Health.

” restrict food advertising and promotion targeting children and to bring new provisions in the statute to prevent the use of children in advertisement of food and beverages”

These programme most of the time take place in the rural community and we know that the rural community is sometimes at a higher risk of non communicable disease. Although we have this misconception, that it is only the urban population who are affected it is not so. The rural population is also affected severely by non communicable diseases. Therefore, the media and the advertising agencies; this request is to you to conform to stringent ethical standards regarding food and beverage advertisement and refrain from claims being made which are not scientifically tenable”

“Fresh, natural and unprocessed food is more ideal”

– NSSL President Visaka Thilakaratne

“At the last Nutrition Congress which was attended by many of us, a very interesting study was done on the degree of processed food vs the rising childhood overrated obesity. That is something that I would like to highlight because this message should be taken very seriously by the media. The more fresh, natural and unprocessed the food we eat the better it is. The globe has decided that the corporate sector should behave responsibly by children. So there are global as well as business principles on this matter as much as the rights of the child involved.

For an instance, one negative result of child targeted marketing of processed food is overweight and obesity. Obesity has been linked to the consumption of energy dense products especially those high in fat and sugar which are marketed directly to children” Ms. Thilakaratne said.

“Obesity has been linked to the consumption of energy dense products”

The Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka (NSSL) also called on all commercial establishments including media to follow the Children’s Rights and Business Principles (available on internet), the first set of comprehensive principles to guide companies on the full range of actions they can take to respect and support children’s rights. “Principle six specifically calls upon businesses to ensure that communications and marketing do not have an adverse effect on children but rather promote children’s rights, positive self-esteem, healthy lifestyles and non-violent values. It calls for marketing practices that comply with the standards of business conduct established by the World Health Assembly” NSSL added. The Sri Lanka College of Endocrinologists and the Diabetes Association of Sri Lanka also expressed similar views concerning this issue stating that it is high time that all stakeholders join hands to ensure proper nutrition through correct eating habits through a multi strategic approach that promotes the health and well being of both youngsters and adults.

“Restrict advertising unhealthy food”

-Deputy Director – FHB Dr. Chitramali De Silva

“As the Family Health Bureau (FHB), we are responsible for the health of the school children. Therefore, to promote the health we have to start activities from school level since children are receptive to any message conveyed through school. Therefore, promoting the health through the school is very important. What we have seen for the past few years is that there are a lot of unhealthy food campaigns implemented through schools and this has affected the health of the school children.

“The rate of obesity among school children has significantly risen and also the risks for non-communicable diseases are also at the rise among children”

The rate of obesity among schoolchildren has significantly risen and also the risks for non-communicable diseases are also at the rise among children. So we have to promote healthy food habits among children for which the school plays a major role. Therefore, unhealthy food advertising targeting school children within the school as well as outside is not a very healthy move. It will expose the future generation to the threats of chronic diseases. We have a ‘School Canteen Policy’ where unhealthy food cannot be made available for schoolchildren in school canteens. This must be fully implemented in schools with the involvement of the Ministry of Education. They have a bigger role to play in the implementation of the ‘School Canteen Policy’. It is crucial to ensure that young children will not be used for advertising or media campaigns. Therefore, media personnel have a big duty to limit the use of children in advertisements and restrict promoting unhealthy food. Instead they can raise awareness of such unhealthy food among the public and about the non communicable diseases associated with them”.

“We are concerned about the rapid increase in childhood obesity”

– SLCP President Dr. Ramya de Silva

“We are very concerned about unhealthy food advertising. Over the past couple of years we have seen a very rapid increase in childhood obesity. The other complications that go hand in hand with childhood obesity are metabolic syndrome. It is sad to see how children are being targeted in advertisements. When a child develops a craving for a certain type of food during his/her childhood, these bad habits go into adulthood. We all know that childhood obesity is associated with adult obesity and this can eventually lead to a cascade of other effects. For instance, an obese girl might stand a chance of giving birth to a pre termed baby after she becomes an adult. Artificial flavours are very often used in unhealthy food that is being advertised. We see that most of the food consumed by children nowadays contains an excess of either fat or carbohydrates. The end result is child obesity. We always say that a healthy childhood gives rise to a healthy nation and this is what we should be promoting as much as possible”.
“Over the past couple of years we have seen a very rapid increase in childhood obesity”