Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Will the Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) report make a difference for consumers?

Justin Macmullan, Consumers International’s Head of Advocacy discusses the recent report by the Commission for Ending Childhood Obesity, endorsed by the World Health Assembly last week, and outlines what it means for consumers.

Helping consumers to choose healthy diets is a major challenge when, in many countries, the marketing of food, the food choices available and the prices of different foods all appear designed to promote an unhealthy diet high in calories, fat, sugar and salt.
With 70 million young children predicted to be overweight or obese by 2025 this is a major public health issue and one that Consumers International (CI) and our Members have campaigned on for many years, most recently for World Consumer Rights Day 2015. 
At this year’s World Health Assembly, governments and civil society had the opportunity to consider the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) latest initiative in this area, the Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) report  which was a personal initiative of Dr Margaret Chan the Director General of the WHO.
The report, which was developed by an appointed commission, delivered more than 30 recommendations across six areas including promoting intake of healthy foods; promoting physical activity; preconception and pregnancy care; early childhood diet and physical activity; health, nutrition and physical activity for school children; and weight management..

What’s in the report?

First of all, as the list of topics shows, this is a report about tackling obesity rather than diet-related disease. Therefore, for example, it includes recommendations on increasing physical activity as this helps to reduce obesity, but not on salt reduction as this is not directly related to obesity.
Looking specifically at the recommendations related to healthy diets, the report includes many of the issues CI and our Members have campaigned on including restricting marketing of unhealthy food to children, improved nutritional information including front of pack labelling, improving the availability of healthy food in public institutions, improving nutrition information in schools, introducing taxes of sugar sweetened beverages, promoting breast feeding. There are gaps – notably in relation to the impact of trade and investment agreements on the ability of governments to take action – but there is also much to welcome.
Another possible criticism is that it offers little that is new but, although this might be true, it does have the benefit of bringing these proposals and recommendations together in one place to create a comprehensive package, stating the proposals clearly and adding the logo of the WHO on the cover, which gives the whole exercise political status and weight.

Will it make a difference?

The challenge is what will happen next. Following a resolution agreed at this year’s World Health Assembly, the WHO is now charged with developing an implementation plan to support the report’s recommendations. If this is going to be effective it must deal with some of the issues that have frustrated previous initiatives in this area. 
CI’s Recommendations for a Global Convention to Protect and Promote Healthy Diets seeks to address these challenges by moving the discussion on from ad hoc initiatives to an international legal framework that would support action on a comprehensive set of policies at the national level. The ECHO report doesn’t include that recommendation, but their implementation plan does have the potential to go some way towards it.
To do that, the key area of accountability must be addressed. The Director General of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, on whose initiative this report was developed, has often used the phrase, ‘what gets counted gets done’ in relation to increasing accountability and delivering results. We hope the same maxim will apply to this important area of work.
A proposal to create a monitoring system as part of the implementation plan could signal genuine progress, but only if it is sufficiently strong, transparent and well publicised and monitors the quality and implementation of policies as well as results. Only this way can governments be held to account for their actions and a clear picture emerge of successes and challenges in implementation.
Read the statement on the ECHO that CI and 9 other NGOs gave at the WHA last week.

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