Beyond self-regulation: dealing with Europe’s consumption problem

vytenis-andriukaitis-71-general-assembly-new-york

Vytenis Andriukaitis, Member of the EC in charge of Health and Food Safety, travelled to New-York to take part in the 71st UN General Assembly, high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance. Muna al-Hussein, Princess of Jordan, Vytenis Andriukaitis and Muhammad Yunus, Founder and Executive Director of the Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (from left to right). © European Union , 2016 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Johanna Leguerre.

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Mr Priit Tohver. The writer is the Regional Director for Europe in the IFMSA for the term 2016/17. He is a fifth year medical student from Tartu University, Estonia.  Mr Tohver is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA).

The European Parliament is currently discussing a revision to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). This Directive aims to coordinate national legislation on all audiovisual media, providing a common set of minimum rules, like for instance what and to whom can be advertised. Recently, over 40 NGOs, including the IFMSA came forth to demand a better AVMSD for the children and youth of Europe.

According to the WHO, around half of all Europeans are overweight, while 20% are obese. Dietary risks are the largest contributor to the disease burden in the European Union, surpassing the effects of tobacco and alcohol consumption, while 7% of national health budgets across the EU are spent on diseases linked to obesity. Speaking of alcohol, almost 14% of deaths among men aged 15-64 can be attributed to alcohol in the European Union. These are not random facts, all of them can be linked to the formative years of childhood and youth.

According to the estimates of the WHO’s Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, 1 in 3 European children aged 6-9 were overweight or obese in 2010, up from 1 in 4 only 2 years earlier. According to the ESPAD study, which samples school children up to the age of 16 in Europe, almost half of all children have tried alcohol at the age of 13 or younger. In addition, an average of 13% of respondents reported being intoxicated in the past 30 days.

These statistics spell trouble for our future, as childhood habits and behaviours tend to have long-term consequences. For one, there is a formidable body of evidence that illustrates the connection between age of onset of drinking and alcohol disorders. Furthermore, there is a strong link between excess weight and damaging health outcomes later in life. Overweight or obese children are more likely to be obese in adulthood, and suffer from associated health problems.

This is where the AVMSD comes in. Whereas the factors that come into play in defining our unhealthy habits are myriad, promotion is one of them. After reviewing the available data, the European Alcohol and Health Forum concluded that advertising alcohol to children and youth has an effect on both the age of onset of drinking and the quantities consumed. Furthermore, the advertising of foods high in sugar, fat or sodium is considered a catalyst for childhood obesity.

Yet whilst the WHO recommends measures such as banning alcohol advertising entirely, the system currently in place in several European countries is that of self- and co-regulation, wherein industry has a bigger say in defining the standards it must adhere to. The EU pledge is yet another example of this approach. As aptly pointed out by the European Public Health Alliance, however, such industry led regulation schemes more often than not lack clear objectives, and a proper system of monitoring, evaluation and sanction. This is probably the reason why such schemes fail to deliver health and policy objectives, whilst clearly being the form of regulation industry itself prefers.

In several countries around Europe, civil society has been pushing for stricter regulations to curb the effects of health harmful advertising. The European Parliament could go a long way in supporting those efforts, by delivering an AVMSD revision that goes beyond the meagre scope of self-regulation.

About the writer

Priit Tohver is the Regional Director for Europe in the IFMSA for the term 2016/17. He is a fifth year medical student from Tartu University, Estonia. Priit is avid about public health and has a particular interest in health systems, minority health and the health implications of trade. The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations unites medical students worldwide to lead initiatives that impact positively the communities they serve. IFMSA represents the opinions and ideas of future medical professionals in the field of global health, and connects and engages with 1.3 million medical students from 122 countries across the globe.

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