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Australia timid on tackling childhood obesity

Australian governments have not had the guts to tackle junk food advertising and its contribution to childhood obesity, according to a new paper from the Parliamentary Library. 

OK, those are not exactly the words used by the paper, Marketing obesity? Junk food, advertising and kids, but it’s certainly the impression that it leaves.

Here’s the official wording:

The paper concludes that overall, the Australian response has been cautious in relation to calls for more action to deal with obesity and its concomitant health problems. Arguments that the junk food industry voluntarily and responsibly limits the exposure of children to excessively manipulative promotion of its products appear to have been successful in maintaining a largely self‐ regulatory environment in Australia. This is despite the findings of national and international studies that indicate more action may need to be taken, and the imposition of various bans and taxes in other countries. Some change to Australia’s current approach may occur in the future, however, as a result of a number of factors, such as growing public demand for intervention and a shift in health policy emphasis towards prevention.

The paper also notes that while preventive health is broadly on Labor’s agenda, the current Government’s policy intentions with regards to specific issues, such as junk food advertising, remain “vague”.

Snippets from the paper include:

• $12.6 billion was spent on advertising in Australia in 2009. Food and non‐alcoholic beverage advertising accounted for $402 million and $149 million respectively. There appear to be no figures available on exactly how much was spent specifically advertising to children. It is possible, however, to speculate from evidence presented in the studies noted in the previous section of this paper, as well as information on market spending by food companies, that the proportion was significant.

• An increasing number of overseas findings agree that television commercials for sweets, snacks and fast food are the mainstays of advertising which targets children. Many advertisements associate physical activity with the products and highlight the health benefits to be gained from their consumption. It is often stressed that the products contain ‘essential nutrients’.

• One marketing website promotes pester power as ‘a passport to growth’ for companies. It advises advertisers ‘to develop a strategy, which targets the kids and influences them totally, so that next time they are out with their parents, they get what they want’.

• A number of studies have concluded that advertising to children has produced disturbing results. One study revealed that by the age of two, children may have beliefs about specific brands. Two to six year olds can recognise familiar brand names, packaging, logos and characters and associate them with products, especially if the brands use salient features such as bright colours, pictures and cartoon characters. By middle childhood, most children can name multiple brands of child‐oriented products.

• An example of product placement is Coca Cola in the children’s film Madagascar.

The paper also examines the influence of advertising upon media content more generally, citing media critic, Ben Bagdikian:

The influence of advertising on magazines reached a point where editors began selecting articles not only on the basis of their expected interest for readers but for their influence on advertisements. Serious articles were not always the best support for ads. An article that put the reader in an analytical frame of mind did not encourage the reader to take seriously an ad that depended on fantasy or promoted a trivial product. An article on genuine social suffering might interrupt the ‘buying’ mood on which most ads for luxuries depend. The next step, seen often in mid‐twentieth century magazines, was commissioning articles solely to attract readers who were good prospects to buy products advertised in the magazine. After that came the magazine phenomenon of the 1970s — creating magazines for an identifiable special audience and selling them to particular advertisers.

But the paper suggests that maybe the times are a changing:

Despite claims by the junk food and advertising industries that self regulation works and further intervention is not necessary, it appears that something needs to be done to prevent public health and economic disaster. Similarly, while industry arguments which posit that the link between junk food, advertising and obesity is inconclusive have been influential in the past, it appears that evidence to the contrary is now becoming more accepted. Further, the trend towards preventive health, which has emerged in recent times, and the current government’s rhetoric of a reform agenda, which prioritises prevention, appears to indicate that a more regulatory regime for junk food advertising may eventually emerge.

Meanwhile, this table from the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children may come in handy next time you hear the food industry arguing that junk food advertising doesn’t contribute to children’s waistlines (apologies for the dodgy reproduction).

These may come in handy, when dining with food industry chiefs
These may come in handy, when dining with food industry chiefs

Comments 11

  1. Scott says:

    The who recommends five primary actions to help prevent childhood obesity

    – promote an active lifestyle;
    – limit television viewing;
    – promote the intake of fruits and vegetables;
    – restrict the intake of energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods (e.g.
    packaged snacks);
    – restrict the intake of sugars-sweetened soft drinks.

    These actions could be achieved at the parent/family level, rather than by banning advertising. In fact, by limiting childrens TV viewing, the parent is effectively banning advertising anyway, all at no cost. Also the rise of Pay TV devices/Tivos that allow ads to be skipped, ensures that parents can control their childrens exposure to this advertising like never before.

  2. John Reidy says:

    As a parent of 2 boys (and a Tivo like device), limiting television and/or add with or without a Tivo is more difficult than it seems.

    Children are attracted to commercial TV and by choice – often don’t skip the adds.

    Some families do limit television use – for reasons other than advertising, – however why not limit junk food advertising

  3. Scott says:

    Surely there has to be a justification for a ban, not a justification to not have a ban. Especially when the link between advertising and obesity is not clear.

    The Who has said in this regard

    “The evidence that the heavy marketing of these foods and beverages to young children causes
    obesity is not unequivocal. Nevertheless, the Consultation considered
    that there is sufficient indirect evidence to warrant this practice being
    placed in the ‘‘probable’’ category and thus becoming a potential target
    for interventions (15–18)”.

    I think this is more an area for further study, rather than knee jerk responses.

  4. SBH says:

    “Many advertisements associate physical activity with the products and highlight the health benefits to be gained from their consumption. It is often stressed that the products contain ‘essential nutrients’.”

    Indeed – nutrigrain – banned in my house because its advertising shows mothers how to spoil their sons and appears to indicate girls don’t need protein.

    Also of concern is the growth in mis-information on packets. For years now you’ve been able to read a constituent analysis on the side of food packets which give a guide to how much fat, salt and sugar are in foods and I’ve taught my kids to read these panels. The other day we were shopping for school snacks. My little girl always asks for roll-ups or a similar thing which are about 70% sugar. Knowing I would say no, she picked up another ‘fruit-based’ product and said ‘look Dad, this one is only 17% sugar” It took a lot of reading to see that what it actually said was that it contained 17% of your daily energy intake! As a snack! Many of the other snacks had similar ‘information’ on the front minimising the benefit of the nutrition information on the small panel on the back or sides. Not lying maybe but hardly reasonable and honest either.

    when advertisers and companies engage in this kind of chicanery they invite regulation.

  5. menznau says:

    Cute blog title,Australia citizen especially childhood don’t care their eatable food. It may be main reason for that.
    http://www.wellnessstarts.com/pure-collagen-skin-care-reviews.html

  6. LisaCrago says:

    OK, this is a joke right, it reads like it is right out of an episode out of The Hollowmen

  7. Fran Barlow says:

    I love the pun in the first line:

    [Australian governments have not had the guts to tackle junk food advertising {my emphasis}]

    More seriously though, preventing childhood obesity really is about early intervention. There’s excellent evidence now that poor eating practices can be embedded early, so getting to kids before they infer that the way to make yourself feel good when you feel bad is to eat something sweet or fatty.

    It’s true that some people are wired to eat more — their brains don’t tell them to stop when they’ve had enough — but we don’t generally know whether our kids are in this category or not, though if the parent(s)/grandparents have a problem, there’s good reason to assume the kids will do likewise. In any event, it is better just to have good household policies. In our household, we didn’t so much stress the non-eating of junk food as the eating of food that was necessary. Rather than assessing how bad a thing was for us, we would ask the kids: how useful is this thing for us? The kids got very good at breaking foods down into their constituents — proteins, carbohydrates (simple and complex), fats (HDLs and LDLs), fibre (semi-soluble, and insoluble), water, vitamins & minerals, water etc — and the ways in which they were enabling us to do the things we needed to do — build muscle and bone mass, mobilise sugars for energy and movement, replace body tissue and other cells, move nutrient to cells and remove waste etc. We had scales handy and we’d have to calculate about how much protein we’d eaten so far today, how much of it was bioavailable (we are vegetarians) and how much we still needed to eat to get what we needed. (It was pretty good for maths too!) This was part of an ongoing family conversation. Fairly obviously, as parents we had to practise what we preached, so it was good for us too!

    This process basically meant that highly refined carbohydrates and low density lipoproteins were marginalised in food intake. There rarely was an argument for consuming these things, though we accepted that occasionally, at birthday parties, it made others happy to see us eating a small portion of their cake or jelly beans. This was a sacrifice we might make to please others on special occasions. Neither of our children became overweight (they are now 26 and 17).

    We also adopted much the same approach to TV, meaning that we’d pick out the shows we really liked, videotape them (that was the prevailing technology then) and watch them when there was a good time to do it. Since the amount of time each week was capped, you had to skip through the ads to squeeze in more TV programs. Today that would be even easier.

    That said, I do agree that most parents won’t have this sort of self-discipline and it would be useful for the state to intervene to support those wishing to exercise control by

    a) limiting advertising of food and alcohol aggressively within programming likely to have significant (25%+) child (i.e. under 16) audiences.

    b) imposing convenience food taxes and hypothecating the funds to support community health programs, quality before and after school centres for pre-pubescent and adolescent children, quality low-cost means-tested food coops etc The taxes could be based on benchmark standards for nutrition — measurements by proportionate weight of protein, complex carbohydrates, HDLs, absence of flavour additives etc In short, food staples and high food quality items would be untaxed, while empty consumables would be highly taxed.

  8. dee izzy says:

    Marketing plays a role in encouraging unhealthy consuming habits. With the current rates of Australians being two-in-three adults and one-in-four children classed as overweight or obese (Obesity Working Group, 2008) it is not surprising to find that most of the specials and marketing at the supermarket are targeted at unhealthy choices. Once in the supermarket it is easy to notice the sale items and specials placed at the end of the aisles; the food is filled with sugar, salt and fat and according to research 85% of the drinks that are on special are unhealthy as well (Science Daily, 2009). The food located at the checkout is no better. A survey conducted in Melbourne on 24 supermarkets found that they all displayed food at their checkouts. The most common found item was chocolate (87%) followed by gum (81%) and sweets (80%). They also found that a mere 7% had their displays of food and drink out of reach of children. With marketing now targeting children and encouraging the kids to use ‘pester power’ (Parkinson, Dixon & Scully, 2006) at the checkout and throughout store to pressure parents to impulse buy junk food is a unhealthy practise becoming all too common. Cheap sugary sweets are seen as a small price to pay after a long shopping trip and an easy way to keep the kids happy and supermarkets are capitalising on this. This is of alarm when considering that the most at risk group is low income families who are more likely to be overweight and the effect these practices can have in relation to individuals and communities.
    Marketing can have a positive effect in the broader community. Supermarkets can benefit themselves and consumers. At the moment there is no control on what supermarkets promote or where they place their promotions. There are inclinations that the government is looking into bringing tighter controls on the marketing of energy dense foods in a bid to curb the obesity epidemic (Obesity Working Group, 2008). Research has suggested bringing in such notions as a higher tax on food and drinks high in sugar, fat and salt and reducing the price of fresh healthy food such as fruit, vegetables and meat. In England they have already brought in the first stages of control marketing and advertising relating to the sale of food lacking in nutrients and high in energy and salt. There is also a call to reduce the amount of junk food at eye level for children and the removing of such foods at the checkout. This is a long way off yet as there needs to be more research, money and time to put into this, but supermarkets choose where they place there food, ultimately until there is law preventing them placing in such places customers need to use their own initiative and common sense in what they are buying and providing for their children.

    For more information have a look at:

    National Preventative Health Taskforce by the Obesity Working Group, 2008, Technical Report No 1 Obesity in Australia: a need for urgent action, 13/5/2012, http://www.fairfieldcity.nsw.gov.au/upload/pfpib32593/nathealth_prevant_obesity.pdf

    Science daily, 2009, Supermarket Discounts Promote Unhealthy Choices, New Zealand Study Finds, 11/5/2012, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090527072907.htm

    Parkinson, K; Dixon, H and Scully, M, 2006, Pester power: snackfoods displayed at supermarket checkouts in Melbourne, Australia, Health Promotion Journal of Australia: Official Journal of Australian Association of Health Promotion Professionals, 17 (2),pp 124-7,12/5/2012, Informit, http://search.informit.com.au/fullText;dn=453011465033513;res=IELHEA

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