Consumers are being asked to take a screenshot or picture of any online or offline marketing of any products that might undermine efforts to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, and anonymously upload it to the new WHO tool.
The organisation says marketing of breastmilk substitutes (BMS) “threatens efforts to protect, promote and support breastfeeding”.
Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, WHO/Europe Regional Adviser on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, tells NutraIngredients why it has decided to crackdown on marketing of infant formula.
“WHO European Region has the lowest exclusive breastfeeding rates out of the six regions. In our region we produce the best evidence on the benefits of breastfeeding. Marketing of breastmilk substitutes and foods for infants and young children, especially digital marketing, threatens efforts to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.
“This analysis from a WHO survey shows children who are never breastfed or breastfed for shorter time has higher chance of developing obesity by the time they are in primary school. One in three primary school children are living with overweight or obesity in the WHO European Region. Therefore unethical marketing of infant formula is a major public health challenge across the region.
“There is clear evidence that the pervasive use of both direct and indirect marketing strategies by industry undermines optimal infant and young child feeding practices, including breastfeeding and safe and appropriate complementary feeding, placing a child’s survival, growth and development at risk. This also violates the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.
Dr Wickramasinghe further explains that the infant formula market is difficult to control due to various factors and marketing strategies used by the industry.
"Also many countries do not have necessary legal framework to protect mothers and children from unethical marketing of these products. Some stakeholders such as online platform regulators are unaware about the issue or it has not been a priority.
"Also complex digital marketing strategies used by the retailer (supermarkets and pharmacies) makes it difficult for monitoring."
He provides the example of the recent ASA ruling over Boots adverts for infant formula on Google. Four paid Google ads from Boots UK Ltd were displayed to users, showcasing various infant formula products. Boots explained that the adverts arrived on Google through paid search advertising, where products were pulled from the boots.com website via an automatic feed.
“Today, as policymakers are trying to protect the health of children by restricting advertising, industry deploys marketing approaches that aggressively use digital strategies that are sophisticated, diverse and highly influential. In many countries this is still an unregulated grey area with transnational capabilities without constraints,” Dr Wickramasinghe adds.
WHO Europe therefore created an AI tool to support governments to develop new ways to monitor and protect the health of children.
WHO specifically asks to be alerted to marketing of:
- any milks that are specifically marketed for feeding infants and young children up to the age of 3 years, including infant and follow-up formulas and drinks for young.
- any other product marketed or otherwise represented as suitable for feeding infants up to the age of 6 months, as anything fed to a baby before the age of 6 months, including water.
- feeding bottles and teats.
- commercially produced foods that are marketed as being suitable for infants and young children from the age of 6 months to 36 months.
The screenshots can be from social media platforms, meal delivery apps, websites, games, or anything else accessible through your phone. They also encourage uploads of photos of any offline marketing materials, including billboards, bus stops, newspapers, journals.
Consumers are also being asked to be on the lookout for other unhealthy products (tobacco and alcohol to foods high in salt, trans fats and sugars) being marketed to children and young people.
WHO states: “There is also clear evidence that the promotion of unhealthy products for infants and children increases their risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), from diabetes and cardiovascular diseases to cancer. In addition, online marketing of fast food and sugary drinks is related to the growing public health problem of childhood overweight and obesity, which can lead not only to premature mortality from NCDs but also to adverse health outcomes throughout life.”
WHO states: “Together, let’s take a stand against the marketing of products that threaten the health of our children. Join our campaign today and become a catalyst for positive change. Your contribution can make a real difference in shaping a healthier future for all.”