The World Health Organization has called on European legislators to tighten the regulation of digital junk food advertising to children, highlighting the “hidden” marketing tactics used to promote unhealthy foods. 

In a report released on Friday (4 November), the European branch of the WHO said children in the region should be protected from adverts delivered via digital media, such as game apps and social networking sites. The agency said food makers are using “pervasive, individually tailored marketing” to target children and promote high fat, salt and sugar items. 

Digital marketing offers a “loophole” for marketers, as there is “little or no” effective regulation and “minimal control”, the researchers concluded. 

“Our governments have given the prevention of childhood obesity the highest political priority. Nevertheless, we consistently find that children – our most vulnerable group – are exposed to countless numbers of hidden digital marketing techniques promoting foods high in fat, sugar and salt,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe. “Parents might be unaware of or underestimate the harmful impact of digital marketing, but this report makes clear the effect of such marketing on our children. It is the responsibility of policy-makers to recognise the new threat presented by digital marketing of food to children and to act swiftly.”

The WHO said “urgent action” was required in the wake of its findings, part of a “comprehensive analysis” of the “concerning situation” of digital marketing to children of foods high in fats, salt and sugars. 

The health body suggested without an effective response, the digital advertising of unhealthy food to children threatens to undermine Europe’s drive to tackle the obesity crisis. It called on governments in the region to extend the protection offered to children offline into the online channel.