International · Law · International norms

Unhealthy foods, non-communicable diseases and the right to health – Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to health

Objectives:

In this report, the Special Rapporteur highlights the link between unhealthy foods and diet-related non-communicable diseases, underscoring the urgent need for States to address structural changes in the food environment, which negatively impact individuals’ enjoyment of the right to adequate and nutritious food – an underlying determinant of the right to health

Scope:

In this report, the Special Rapporteur highlights that the realization of the right to health is “inextricably linked to the fulfilment of the right to food” (para 1). Reflecting on the growing burden of non-communicable diseases, he points that the reason for this trend lies in changes in the food systems, and particularly the increased globalization, foreign direct investments, and food marketing.

The Special Rapporteur maintains that “Under the right to health framework, States have a core and non-derogable obligation to ensure access to the minimum essential food that is nutritionally adequate to ensure freedom from hunger for everyone. Pertinently, the right to food framework requires States to ensure the availability and accessibility of food in a quantity and quality to satisfy the individual dietary needs, and which contain a mix of nutrients for physical and mental growth, development and maintenance, and physical activity that are in compliance with human physiological needs at all stages of life individuals’“. (para 12).

The report makes several policy recommendations to address diet-related NCDs. Concerning the policies covered by FULL, it states:

  • Front-of-pack nutrition labeling: “Consumer-friendly labelling of food products is a common method to raise awareness and encourage consumers to make informed decisions about their diets. For instance, some States have issued guidance for supermarkets and food and beverage companies to use images such as front-of-pack, “traffic light” food labelling” (para 18)
  • Nutrition education in schools: “As children are particularly vulnerable to increased risk of NCDs in adulthood due to the consumption of unhealthy foods, States should involve schools in teaching children about the benefits of healthy foods in a child-friendly manner” (para 18)
  • Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages: “To reduce the intake of unhealthy foods, States should adopt policies to create disincentives for consuming them. For instance, some States have levied a consumption tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to curb the obesity epidemic, with the revenue raised from sales to be spent on providing drinking water.” (para 19)
  • Subsidies: “Reducing the price of nutritious food to levels cheaper than or comparable to unhealthy foods would make healthy foods more affordable. For instance, agricultural subsidies benefiting unhealthy foods could be removed and shifted to subsidies for increasing the production of healthier foods. States could take measures, such as tax benefits and focused investments in agricultural production, to incentivize farmers to produce healthier foods like vegetables and fruits” (para 19)
  • Procurement in schools: “Procurement policies could be used to encourage farmers to produce fruits and vegetables, guaranteeing profits and making more nutritious diets affordable for lowincome groups… Another measure adopted by States has been to encourage localized farming and then procure the produce for schools. This not only enhances local economic development, but also ensures the reduction of unhealthy foods among schoolchildren” (para 20)
  • Advertising restrictions: “To prevent harm to people’s health and fulfil their obligation under the right to
    health, States should put in place national policies to regulate advertising of unhealthy foods.” (para 22)
  • Reducing children’s exposure to marketing:States should formulate laws and a regulatory framework with the objective of
    reducing children’s exposure to powerful food and drink marketing.” (para 22)
  • Marketing restrictions (as opposed to self-regulation and public-private partnerships): “Owing to the inherent problems associated with self-regulation and public–private partnerships, there is a need for States to adopt laws that prevent companies from using insidious marketing strategies. The responsibility to protect the enjoyment of the right to health warrants State intervention in situations when third parties, such as food companies, use their position to influence dietary habits by directly or indirectly encouraging unhealthy diets, which negatively affect people’s health. Therefore, States have a positive duty to regulate unhealthy food advertising and the promotion strategies of food companies. Under the right to health, States are especially required to protect vulnerable groups such as children from violations of their right to health” (para 25)

 

Among its final recommendations, the report provides the following:

  • “In keeping with their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health, States should formulate and implement a national public health strategy and plan of action to address diet-related NCDs, which should be widely disseminated. Such a strategy should recognize the link between unhealthy foods and NCDs, while specifically addressing the structural flaws in food production, marketing and retail that promote the availability and accessibility of unhealthy foods over healthier options. Towards this end, States should necessarily develop multisectoral approaches that include all relevant ministries such as ministries of health, agriculture, finance, industry and trade. States should also ensure meaningful and effective participation of affected communities such as farmers and vulnerable groups like children, women and low-income groups in all levels of decision-making to discourage production and consumption of unhealthy foods and promote the availability and accessibility of healthier food options. ” (para 63)