A report from Public Health Taskforce Co-Chair Emma Boyland
After several covid-19 interrupted years, October 2022 brought the welcome opportunity for the public health community to come together in person at the International Congress of Obesity in Melbourne. While not an exhaustive list, there were public health colleagues from Singapore, Iran, South Africa, Nigeria, Denmark, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand, China, England, Scotland, Ghana, the US and, of course, Australia present to discuss, digest, learn, and plan future work. I was honoured to attend the meeting as an EASO representative (Public Health taskforce co-lead) and as an invited speaker to discuss the effective regulation of unhealthy food marketing, an issue that is as pertinent down under as it is across Europe and other territories. More of that shortly.
In a reflection of the public health strength of the programme, the meeting opened with a plenary from the legendary Prof Boyd Swinburn who outlined the issue of a global syndemic – a synergy of epidemics that co-occur in time and place, negatively interact, and have common drivers. He was of course talking about covid-19 and obesity. In presenting a syndemic view, he effectively drew together all the factors that influence nutrition, health, and planetary health which covered the food system and the levers within that system that drive health outcomes.
Prof Swinburn also leads INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity / Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) Research, Monitoring and Action Support) which is a global network of public-interest organisations and researchers that aims to monitor, benchmark and support public and private sector actions to increase healthy food environments and reduce obesity and NCDs and their related inequalities. There was a strong presence of the INFORMAS team at the congress, illustrated by the presentation (across posters and talks) of impressive progress on the development of systematic protocols and capacity building globally as well as high quality, multi-country data on topics such as food marketing (where I am a module leader), labelling, retail environments and food composition.
There was a packed house for the workshop on unpacking the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in governing the commercial determinants of health, as the audience recognised the critical role NGOs play in amplifying the voice of researchers, promoting the policy translation of data, and mobilising multisector action. While we’re on the term “commercial determinants of health”, in a dinner discussion with Prof Swinburn he proposed a pivot to the term “commercial drivers of disease and death” to remove the health halo and better reflect the reality of the outcomes from commercial interests. He has a point!
I was lucky enough to present as part of a session exploring the current state of evidence and research capabilities on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. We heard from AProf Kathryn Backholer (Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition, Deakin) on the complexity of the digital food marketing ecosystem, the tactics used to attract and persuade children, and – critically – her work to develop and validate an automated Artificial Intelligence system to capture brand imagery in online marketing to support monitoring and policy enforcement. Although initially designed for food brands, there is huge scalability potential for application to other commercial drivers of disease and death such as alcohol and tobacco. Following this, I unpicked the recent World Health Organization (WHO) global evidence reviews on food marketing impact and policy efficacy, and the process of using this evidence to underpin new WHO global guidelines to guide Member States in how to effectively reduce the exposure of children to food marketing and the power of that marketing to persuade and influence food behaviours and health.
Importantly, Prof Simon Barquera was also on hand at ICO to report on Mexico’s leadership in taking steps to prevent obesity and act on NCDs, the challenges they encountered, the vital importance of effective collaboration between academia, advocates, and policymakers in getting policies on marketing and labelling (among others) over the line, and the many more opportunities to come. They have some impressive data on the difference these policies have made to purchasing habits and dietary health in Mexico. Change IS possible! And on that positive note, I very much look forward to catching up with colleagues again in Dublin for ECO 2023.