Tackling Childhood Obesity: Defining Food Marketing as a Global Child Rights Concern

The Law & Non-Communicable Diseases Unit (Law & NCD Unit) researches the impact of the tobacco, alcohol and food industries on children’s health. We develop policy tools and work to build legal capacity which in turn reduces their exposure to harmful marketing. At present, we are the only academic research centre in the world that examines the role of legal instruments in regulating food marketing. To ensure complete transparency and independence, we do not receive any funding from the industries we research.

REF2021 submission

In her role as Director of the Law & NCD Unit, Professor Amandine Garde promotes the effective regulation of food marketing as a means to prevent chronic diseases. Her work contributes to the understanding that states need to adopt robust, evidence-based public health policies. Firstly, this approach helps inform public health actors about the importance of legal instruments to effectively prevent childhood obesity and other non-communicable diseases. Secondly, it provides practical assistance to help these actors develop and implement comprehensive food marketing policies aimed at protecting children and their health.

The Challenge

Research shows a direct link between unhealthy food marketing and a rise in childhood obesity. We believe that states not only have a moral but also a legal obligation to protect children from harmful commercial practices. To achieve this, we promote the more effective regulation of tobacco, alcohol and food industries. Through a rights-based approach, we support the use of law to protect children from marketing. We also defend these measures when their legality has been challenged.

Notwithstanding, opposition from the food and advertising industries remains strong. Many states are reluctant to limit unhealthy food marketing. Instead, they have relied on the good will of these industries to tackle the problem. We know that this alone is not sufficient which is why we work closely with policymakers to help tackle this problem.

Research Action

Our work examines the impact of trade liberalisation and international investment from tobacco, alcohol and food industries on chronic diseases. We promote the use of children’s rights to encourage the adoption of legally binding measures that contribute to the prevention of childhood obesity. We achieve this in three ways:

  1. We frame obesity as a children’s rights issue that can negatively impact their health and related rights, thus increasing health inequalities.
  2. We work closely with governments around the world to ensure that trade and investment laws do not prevent the implementation of sustainable, evidence-based, comprehensive food marketing policies.
  3. We collaborate with the European Union to effectively regulate cross-border and digital marketing.

Working in partnerships

We work strategically with international public health actors and civil society officials and agencies, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the European Union. Our engagement with these beneficiaries helps us increase awareness of legal issues relevant to the prevention of non-communicable diseases. We help policymakers and governments anticipate possible legal challenges and adopt robust but trade-law compliant public health measures. We also work with public health actors to defend these measures when their legality is challenged.

Prof Amandine Garde from the Law & NCD Unit with Dr Emma Boyland, Senior Lecturer in Psychological Sciences teamed up to host a workshop at the University of Liverpool London Campus on 24 April 2019.

Find out more about the workshop sessions and the invited participants:

Outputs and outcomes

Our research systematically exposes the loopholes of existing regulatory frameworks, and reflects on effective ways to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing. The Law & NCD Unit has been instrumental in promoting a better understanding of both the role and complexities of law by public health actors. This, in turn, has helped shift the perception that obesity should not be seen exclusively as a medical problem, but as a much broader socioeconomic issue.

Our research feeds into key expert meetings on law and NCD. We have contributed to the development of the Montevideo Road Map [link here], the first international instrument to explicitly mandate the UN to develop legal capacity to address NCDs. The Law & NCD Unit has played a pivotal role in UN efforts to build legal capacity and has contributed to several training initiatives on law and NCD prevention (e.g. Oslo in 2013, Cairo in 2015; Moscow in 2016), and food marketing regulation more specifically (e.g. Kuwait and Porto in 2013, Amman and Kuala Lumpur in 2015, Oman in 2017, UAE in 2018, Geneva in 2019). We have organised a range of conferences which have further supported these efforts (e.g. the 2016 Ending Childhood Obesity conference).

Publication highlights:

Alemanno, A. and Garde, A. (2013a) ‘Regulating Lifestyles in Europe. How to Prevent and Control Non-Communicable Diseases Associated with Tobacco, Alcohol and Unhealthy Diets?’, Swedish Institute of European Policy Studies, (December).

Alemanno, A. and Garde, A. (2013b) ‘The Emergence of an EU Lifestyle Policy: The Case of Alcohol, Tobacco and Unhealthy Diets’, Common Market Law Review, 50(6).

Garde, A. (2017) ‘Special Issue on the Implementation in Europe of the WHO Recommendations on Food Marketing to Children’, European Journal of Risk Regulation, 8(Special Edition 2).

Garde, A. et al. (2018) A Child Rights-Based Approach to Food Marketing: A Guide for Policy. Geneva.

Garde, A. (2018) ‘Global health law and non-communicable disease prevention: maximizing opportunities by understanding constraints’, in Luca Burci, G. and Toebes, B. (eds) Research Handbook on Global Health Law. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, pp. 389–426.

Ending Childhood Obesity book cover

Garde, A. and Curtis, J. (2020) Ending Childhood Obesity: A Challenge at the Crossroads of Human Rights and International Economic Law (Elgar Studies in Health and the Law). Featuring the chapter ‘Combatting obesogenic commercial practices through the implementation of the best interests of the child principle’ by Prof Amandine Garde.

  Amandine Garde Regulating Lifestyles report cover

1. Alberto Alemanno and Amandine Garde - 'Regulating Lifestyles in Europe'

2. Food Marketing Unicef Executive Summary (PDF)

Amandine Garde Workshop on Food Marketing report

1. Download the Workshop on the Food Marketing Consultation programme and list of participants (PDF).

2. A Child Rights-Based Approach to Food Marketing: A Guide for Policy Makers. UNICEF, 2018 (PDF)

Keynote lecture by Prof Amandine Garde 

Watch a video: (38 minutes, 48 seconds)

'NCD Prevention: A Challenge at the Crossroads of International Trade and Human Rights' - University of Gronigen, The Netherlands, 31 May and 1 June 2018.

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