Health officials have welcomed a proposal by the World Health Organisation to regulate advertising promotions of food and drinks rich in sugar, salt and fats that target children so as to protect younger people from the risk of lifestyle diseases.
The development follows a WHO announcement that it would start working with governments around the world, through its agency, the Global Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, to assess nutritional value of foods and provide scientific basis for marketing restrictions.
Governments have one year to come up with guidelines and policies to regulate marketing of food advertisements with guidance from WHO.
The head of Non-communicable Diseases at Rwanda Biomedical Centre, Dr Marie Aimee Muhimpundu told The Sunday Times that although they had not yet received official communication from WHO, it was an idea that “...we would consider looking at seriously”.
Muhimpundu said that although there was not much advertising of ‘junk food’ in local media, there was still need to put it in check if the prevalence of lifestyle diseases were to be controlled.
Under the WHO recommendations, governments are expected to play a leading role in reducing children’s overall exposure to food marketing and set rules on the persuasive techniques companies can use, with a view to protecting children from the adverse impacts of marketing.
“The goal is to establish a universally high standard and, ultimately, restrict the impact of potentially harmful food and drink marketing on children,” a statement issued by the world health body said.
According to WHO, several advertisements on TV, the Internet and mobile phones promote foods high in fat, sugar and salt—such as juice, biscuits , bread, and sodas—consumption of which should be limited as part of a healthy diet.
The advertisements have been shown to influence children’s food preferences, purchasing and overall dietary behaviour. That is why lifestyle diseases among children are more prevalent in urban areas because of exposure to TV and radio adverts, experts say.
Phillip Rwamucyo, a food science expert working with Abbey Family Clinic in Remera, echoed a similar message, pointing out that a good number of Rwandans have access to foreign media platforms that are rife with fast-food advertising, increasing chances of them becoming ‘junk’ food consumers.
“It is unfortunate that many processed food and beverage adverts are designed to sell but not tell the truth about the products health wise,” he noted.
The recommendations accompany those on marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, endorsed by the 63rd World Health Assembly in 2010.
Phillip Nzaire, the in charge of quality assurance at Rwanda Standards Board (RSB) said there was nothing wrong with such adverts as long as the manufacturer does not lie about the ingredients of the product.
“The manufacturer should let the consumer know the ingredients of the product, then let them decide whether to use the product or not,” he said. Currently Rwanda does not have regulations governing food advertising.
Efforts in place
Muhimpundu said that RBC, in partnership with other sector players, was involved in proper nutrition campaigns at least once every month, as part of efforts to help people stay away from unhealthy foods.
“We also partner with bodies like Rwanda Standards Board, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, to deter importation of foodstuff deemed harmful to human health,” Muhimpundu said.
According to Nzaire, RSB tests all industry-made foods, to ascertain whether ingredients are fit for public consumption, before the product gets on the market.
Non-communicable Diseases in Rwanda accounted for an estimated 29 per cent of all mortality in 2008, with the most prevalent being cardiovascular diseases, which accounted for 12 per cent of total deaths across all age groups.
Cancers, non-communicable variants of respiratory diseases and diabetes contributed five per cent, three per cent and two per cent to total mortality respectively.
March 2013 statistics from WHO show that NCD’s, are by far the leading cause of death in the world, accounting for 63 percent of all annual deaths. More than 36 million people die from related causes globally each year, about 80 percent from low and middle-income countries.