Issue 8 / 7 March 2011

CHILDREN who watch just 2 hours of television a day see 18 hours of junk food advertisements each year — the equivalent of 3 full schooldays being enticed to eat unhealthily.

Systematic reviews on food marketing to children indicate that food and beverage marketing influences the preferences and purchase requests of children, influences consumption at least in the short term, is a likely contributor to less healthy diets and may contribute to negative diet-related health outcomes among children and youth.

Many drivers contribute to the high rates of obesity that we have in Australia; however, repetitious and persuasive marketing contributes to normalising junk food and a skewing of the community’s understanding of what makes up a normal diet.

While the solution to obesity is multifaceted, we urgently need to see the introduction of compulsory regulations that ban junk food advertisements to children. So you can understand our disappointment last week when the Senate voted down the Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising (Broadcast Amendment) Bill 2010.

However, the announcement from the AMA that it strongly supports a ban on the broadcast advertising of junk food to children was heartening.

The need for those involved in health care to provide a united voice to balance the well financed and influential industry lobby is vital. Government regulation of junk food marketing to children is essential if we have any hope of reducing health inequalities and is a cost-effective intervention to reduce childhood obesity.

There is some limited regulation around advertising to children, but these industry-developed codes are voluntary and limited by loopholes. For example, the food and advertising industries have decided the definition of advertising “primarily directed to children” is based on the percentage of child viewers. In many instances, this does not cover popular early evening shows that often have a high children’s audience.

Increasingly, social media and product-branded internet sites are enticing children with games, giveaways and promotions. These new forms of advertising are even more difficult to monitor and are barely covered in the present voluntary codes. As well, individual companies can set their own nutritional standards, thereby setting the bar as high or as low as they want in order to ensure they can continue to advertise their products.

Limiting or banning junk food marketing is a key step towards primary prevention of overweight, and one that health care professionals should be eager to get behind. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure is nowhere more evident than when considering the high risks of allowing the problem of childhood obesity to continue into adulthood, especially with the higher risks of a range of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

In 2009, Australia’s National Preventative Health Taskforce recommended that definitions and criteria for determining unhealthy food and beverages be developed and the impact of voluntary self-regulation be monitored, evaluated and escalated to enforced legislation, if the voluntary forms are unsuccessful. The federal government has acted on some of the taskforce recommendations and will use it to guide future actions, which makes the Senate decision last week even more frustrating.

The World Health Organization has endorsed a set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children and called for international action to reduce the impact on children of marketing foods high in fat, sugar or salt.

Effectively fighting childhood obesity begins with the promotion of healthy environments and the prevention of disease. Health professionals already play an essential role in helping to prevent childhood obesity. By continuing to use their influence within the community and getting behind the call for effective regulations of junk food marketing to children, we can convince the government that more decisive action is needed.

Ms Kathy Chapman is a nutritionist and Director of Health Strategies at Cancer Council NSW.

Posted 7 March 2011

3 thoughts on “Kathy Chapman: Let’s junk unhealthy food ads

  1. Robert Loblay says:

    Jo Rogers used to say “There is no such thing as ‘junk food’, only ‘junk diets’.” Leaving aside the difficulty of defining ‘junk food’, I doubt that a ban on broadcast advertising would have much effect unless a range of other measures were also instituted. For example, we should ban supermarkets from displaying ‘junk foods’ on the lower shelves (at children’s eye level) and at the checkout counter where people line up with their kids. Better to require junk products to be displayed on the top shelves, far away from the checkout, where they can only be accessed by ladder with the help of a sales assistant. And while we’re at it, let’s require newsagents, convenience stores & all other small shops to hide junk products from view and put up signs that say “Beware: junk food is bad for your health and causes …(take your pick of horrible diseases)”. Let’s also ban their display at the movies; at takeaway food outlets; at sporting events; at clubs; in the schools… Come to think of it, why not just BAN THEM EVERYWHERE?

  2. Martin Barry says:

    I’m not a scientist and not a “doctor”, medical or otherwise. But I am interested in important issues and these kinds of opinions worry me. To talk of healthy and unhealthy foods is, I think, unhelpful. Surely no food is unhealthy as all of them deliver calories. Yes, yes, I know some deliver so-called “empty calories” – another confusing term usually associated with sugar which seems hardly ever to be consumed by itself but nearly always in association with other foods (eg, breakfast cereals). I admit that there must be many people whose eating habits (let’s not call them diets) leave a lot to be desired, but, as the author says about obesity/overweight, the problem is multi-faceted…. which facets operate then for a youngster? Clearly, inactivity if they’re sitting in front of a telly for a couple of hours instead of being outside playing – memo to carer: get your kid outside on a bike; too many “fast food” meals perhaps or just a poor general eating practices. Banning the ads for certain products will not change those things.
    I’m in my 60s and when I went to secondary school, I regularly bought from the school tuckshop a cream bun for morning recess and a pie, pasty or sausage roll for lunch. There were about 500 children at our secondary school and I doubt there were more than 20 who were overweight. We played sport, we had PE three times a week, we walked everywhere, we competed in athletics, football, cricket, tennis and we had never heard the term junk food (although by today’s definition, we were definitely eating that).
    Can I respectuflly suggest that we need to be careful that these strongly held views about food products are not ideological but rooted in science. We’ve been lectured for decades now about all these things and we’re fatter than ever. If it’s not working, perhaps time for a change of approach. But, banning and prohibition has never worked anywhere.

  3. Dr Rosemary Stanton says:

    Well said, Kathy. The huge loopholes in the food industry’s voluntary code to control advertising of unhealthy foods make it useless. The levels of ‘permitted’ sugar. salt and saturated fat are so lenient that foods most people would define as unsuitable for everyday consumption get through. The industry also arbitrarily decides on ‘serving size’, adding to the confusion. And then the Australian Food and Grocery Council claimed recently that only 10 out of 410 ads were problematic, basing this on the above shonky aspects plus the fact that they count only the number of ads, not how often they are shown. We need to step up representations to the Government to save Australian children from the insidious effects that advertising of junk foods has on their consumption of the products and their health.

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