Obesity's steady climb to the top of the list of preventable causes of death is eclipsed only by smoking, but the rates for each head in opposite directions. We may be smoking less, but we're snacking faster. And the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging countries to save the next generation from entering the deadly world of childhood obesity.

WHO Europe offices announced Tuesday their hopes for member states to limit the ability of marketing companies to target, and exploit, the younger television audience to whom they advertise. As kids have trouble differentiating between cartoon and commercial, the report said, marketing companies wield a unique power in their ability to persuade children.

"Children are surrounded by adverts urging them to consume high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, director of the WHO's regional unit for Europe, "even when they are in places where they should be protected, such as schools and sports facilities."

Jakab, who wrote the foreword of the WHO report Tuesday, argued that recent data shows a sedentary lifestyle in front of the television won't necessarily lead to obesity. It's the programs that kids are watching that cement their loyalty to unhealthy choices.

Leading categories of advertised foods are soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, biscuits, sweets, snacks, ready meals, and fast food restaurants, the WHO report said.

"Unfortunately, marketing unhealthy food to children has been proven to be disastrously effective," the report added. "Whereas adults are aware when they are being targeted ... children are unable to distinguish, for example, between adverts and cartoons. This makes them particularly receptive and vulnerable to messages that lead to unhealthy choices."

In 2012, WHO published a report called "Population-Based Approaches to Childhood Obesity Prevention." The report examined several key steps that countries needed to take in order to ensure children maintained healthy lifestyles.

"Policies influencing food environments that are likely to be effective interventions include restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, nutrition labeling, and food taxes and subsidies," the report states. It goes on to couple these preventative measures with ameliorative policies, which promote physical fitness.

"Policies influencing physical activity environments that have been demonstrated as effective include environmental interventions targeting the built environment, policies that reduce barriers to physical activity, transport policies, policies to increase space for recreational activity, and school-based physical activity policies," it notes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports childhood obesity has more than doubled in children in the past 30 years and has tripled in adolescents, which puts an increasing number of children at risk for cardiovascular diseases such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. "In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease," the CDC says.

Of particular vulnerability, the WHO noted, were lower-socioeconomic groups, whose access to affordable, healthy food is squandered by the pervasive influence of marketers.

"Overweight is one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st century," Jaka wrote in the report's foreword. "All countries are affected to varying extents, particularly in the lower socioeconomic groups," and since low-cost food tends to be worse nutritionally, health takes a back seat to survival.

WHO Europe said that while all 53 member states of its European region have signed up to restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, most rely on general advertising regulations that do not specifically address the promotion of high-fat, -salt, or -sugar products, Reuters reported.

What's more, according to the WHO's report on childhood obesity prevention, the likely effect in low- and middle-income countries may be grim, if only due to a lack of information and precedent.

"Importantly, little is known about the effectiveness of interventions in low- and middle-income countries, and on the sustainability of interventions over time," the report states. "In addition, minimal information is available on the unintended impact of interventions," which suggests perhaps smoking may soon relinquish its number one spot as the leading cause of preventable death, even if for the wrong reasons.