Obesity is a major public health concern and we must minimise children’s exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods. It is a key factor in the development of many gastrointestinal conditions, including digestive cancers, such as liver and colorectal cancers, inflammatory bowel diseases, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) and coeliac disease.
One area of particular concern is the level of childhood obesity across Europe. Last year, a United European Gastroenterology (UEG) report stated that, across 46 European countries, one in every three children aged between six and nine years is either overweight or obese.
Childhood obesity levels throughout the continent are increasing at an alarming rate. Globally, 41 million children under the age of five are overweight and, if current trends continue, this is expected to rise to 70 million children by 2025.
Earlier this year, at a meeting on strategies to address childhood obesity, the Maltese Council presidency in collaboration with the Commission presented a valuable resource that supports member states in translating their national school food standards related to health and nutrition into food procurement specifications.
These guidelines also feed into the EU action plan on childhood obesity 2014-2020 and key food groups are covered, such as fruit and vegetables, meat, salt, saturated fat and sugars.
Yet another hot topic in this area is the revision of the audiovisual media services directive, currently being discussed in Council and Parliament.
The revision poses an excellent opportunity to reduce the exposure of children to the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, thus tackling the self-regulation and marketing of these commodities.
Self-regulation should not be part of the solution as there is no evidence that this has delivered positive health results in the past, nor that it is likely to do so in the future.
Member states should instead adopt measures that effectively minimise children’s exposure to unhealthy marketing, such as implementing mandatory limits on the marketing of non-healthy foods.
Children watch many different types of programmes, marketing restrictions should therefore not be limited to just children’s television shows, but broadened to sports, music and family shows, to reduce their exposure. Solely targeting children’s programmes with this strategy will not result in a future-proof directive.
I hope the Commission and the member states will be very quick to set up ambitious criteria on endocrine disruptors.
The Commission was condemned in 2015 by the European Court of Justice, which ruled that the Commission breached EU law by failing to adopt criteria to tackle these substances. Many of these chemicals have been shown to have a role in the obesity epidemic.
Our children are the future and priorities need to change.
Further to the crippling impact obesity has on our healthcare systems, the economic burden of treating the condition is simply too great for the European region to handle and it is estimated to cost the European Union €70bn annually through healthcare costs and lost productivity.
National and European actions, such as healthy nutrition education and the further development of national strategies for prevention and early intervention, are needed now more than ever to reduce the rising levels of obesity and, in turn, to help prevent an associated rise in digestive health conditions across the continent.