Deborah Chen | Role of marketing unhealthy foods to children | On point

With all the increased coverage surrounding Health Minister Christopher Tufton’s recent announcement of key health initiatives for 2022-23, including highlights of policy reforms to curb soaring rates of non-communicable diseases ( MNT), why not shed some light on another issue that has been plaguing Jamaica for some time? The marketing of unhealthy foods targeting children globally and locally, which has increased dramatically over the years. Every day, children are exposed to and attracted to exciting food marketing advertisements where they live, learn and play – on TV, in school, in stores, on mobile devices and online.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other major health organizations around the world indicate that the widespread marketing of unhealthy foods is a significant risk factor for childhood obesity. Food marketing that targets children can have lifelong consequences, including contributing to already exacerbated trends in overweight and obesity. The last Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey 2016-2017 shows that more than half of the Jamaican population (54%) is overweight or obese. Worse still, a comparison between the 2010 and 2017 Global School Student Health Surveys shows an alarming 68% increase in numbers for boys and girls aged 13-15. One can only imagine what the stats will reflect in the age of COVID-19, where we’ve seen the snowball effect of food marketing since much of our learning environment shifted to the world. virtual.


With the upsurge in overweight and obesity rates among our children, what more do we expect, with the multiplicity of tantalizing advertisements plastered across our TV screens, newspapers, social media platforms and on billboards, posters and hoardings posters in and around our schools? It is imperative that we recognize that our children are extremely vulnerable to food marketing and the tactics used to attract them. Most of this commercialization is in ultra-processed products and fast food foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugar or salt/sodium. These advertisements are highly suggestible and can strongly influence children’s eating habits by increasing their current and future food consumption.

Research has shown that eating these foods is highly addictive, making it harder to fight bad eating habits. After all, it highlights the need for comprehensive marketing restrictions!

Protecting Jamaican children and adolescents from the marketing of unhealthy foods is the most cost-effective way to improve their chances of living longer, healthier lives while simultaneously reducing the rising healthcare costs associated with NCDs. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the fundamental right of our children to a healthy childhood, free from economic exploitation. Article 24, section 2 (c) states: “To combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary health care, by, among othersthe application of readily available technologies and the provision of adequate nutritious food and potable water, taking into account the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.

The constant exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages is inconsistent with the recommended diet for children and is grossly unfair and abusive. It also undermines the efforts of parents, schools, community and government to raise healthy children and prevent overweight, obesity and costly chronic diseases, which Jamaica already faces.


Based on numerous research findings and growing concern, several countries have employed strategies to limit the effects of food advertisements on children, their eating behaviors and their overall health. According to a 2017 report by Mapa Nutricional, Chile once had one of the highest obesity prevalence rates in the world, with almost 25% of children between the ages of six and seven being obese. Chile’s Comprehensive Food Labeling and Advertising Law of 2016 included a restriction on the marketing of foods high in calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar to children under 14 (including advertisements on TV, websites, radio and magazines). These foods also cannot be marketed in schools. Cartoons, toys and coloring materials included in these advertisements or as marketing aids are also restricted. The country saw a reduction in the number of TV ads for unhealthy foods (preschoolers saw 44% fewer and teens saw 58% fewer ads) and a 28% reduction in the number of rich foods in salt, fat, and sugar with child-directed marketing on the package.

Similar measures have also been implemented in Canada under Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act, prohibiting commercial advertising directed at children under 13. Quebec’s restrictions on advertising to children have been shown to have a positive impact on nutrition through reduced fast food consumption and lower rates of overweight/obesity. The first study conducted since the ban, in 2008, showed that the combined rate of overweight and obesity was significantly lower than the national level in Quebec (23% compared to 26%). Subsequent data from a 2011 study showed a 13% reduction in fast food consumption in Quebec, with 22 million fewer fast food meals consumed and a decrease in fast food purchases of US$88 million. per year. Quebec also has the lowest obesity rates among 5 to 17 year olds as well as the highest vegetable and fruit consumption rates in Canada.

These kinds of findings are now being used in the region and around the world to inform and support the development of new policies on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.


Amid calls in the press for NCDs to be declared an emergency, and if we are to ensure a healthy future for our children and Jamaica, we must act now! Healthy food policies have always been considered essential tools in the fight against NCDs. The available evidence on the effectiveness of comprehensive marketing regulations, combined with front-of-package warning labeling (FOPWL) policies, a national school nutrition policy, and fiscal measures such as a tax on sugary drinks, may prove useful in Jamaica’s fight. with NCDs and help ease the burden on our health sector and the wider economy.

It is also important for us to recognize and accept that policy implementation will naturally take some time to produce the desired results. Nevertheless, the evidence shows that they work! So let’s not lose sight of the goals we have set for ourselves to create a healthier and more sustainable Jamaican population.

Also acknowledge the plethora of evidence that suggests partial measures are ineffective and easy for industry to circumvent. Strict regulations with real-world enforcement and consequences are imperative to reduce our children’s exposure to harmful food and drink marketing. Current statistics and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic signal the need for more and stricter legal policies with broad coverage across all marketing channels and clear nutritional standards. A comprehensive approach and sound policies are essential to ensure and maintain the protection of our children and to reverse trends in childhood obesity and ensure the health of future generations.

Deborah Chen is executive director of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Send your comments to [email protected]

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