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How this campaign is fighting to end unhealthy advertising to children

Introduction by Croakey: An Australia Institute poll released this week has found high levels of public support for bans on television advertising of unhealthy products and services, including junk foods, alcohol and gambling.

As well, more Australians agree than disagree that ads promoting fossil fuels should be banned (41 percent versus 24 percent).

Below, Croakey’s managing editor Alison Barrett profiles a campaign that is building community support for action to stop harmful advertising on government-owned assets such as public transport and within 500 metres of schools.


Alison Barrett writes:

When Asherly Bradac asks her four young children how they would like to spend their pocket money, they respond with a resounding “slurpee”.

When she asks where they want to go on a special outing, they say “McDonalds” or “Hungry Jacks”.

These are likely familiar scenarios for many families inundated by advertising of unhealthy food and drinks.

“It dominates every space that I take my children,” Bradac said. This makes her anxious and impacts negatively on family experiences.

Bradac is a keen supporter of the Food Fight! campaign, led by Cancer Council Victoria, to raise awareness of unhealthy food and drink advertising in places where children spend time.

She is passionate about creating a healthy environment for her children, who are aged between four and seven, because “those experiences in early childhood 100 percent impact what we do lifelong throughout our lives”.

But she says it is hard because “[children] want what they can see and I can’t remove what they can see. It is beyond my capacity as a parent to create that change”.

“We see billboards at the bus stop and the tram that goes past,” she said. “You can’t find another route to school.”

Another supporter of the Food Fight! campaign is Melbourne primary school teacher Mitch Leyton who hears first-hand the impacts of unhealthy advertising on children.

“On a weekly basis I will hear students comment about how they have witnessed a billboard or a display on a bus stop that is focusing on unhealthy food advertisements. Most of the comments they will be making is ‘if I am good today, I’ll be able to get what I saw on my way to school’,” he said.

Leyton explains that he encourages fresh fruit breaks at school and engages his students – between 10 and 12 years old – in conversations about the ways in which marketing companies use colour and language to persuade children to buy their unhealthy products.

The campaign

Jane Martin, Executive Manager Obesity Program Cancer Council Victoria, told Croakey the main goal of the Food Fight! campaign – which was launched in March this year – is to “raise awareness of the impact of unhealthy food and drink advertising on children”.

The campaign calls for action to restrict the advertising of unhealthy food and drink on government-owned assets such as public transport and within 500 metres of schools.

It is a mass media advocacy campaign that asks for individuals to visit the Food Fight! website where they are provided with a “menu of options” for action, including signing a statement of support for the campaign.

Martin told Croakey that 60 percent of food advertising on public transport and near schools in Victoria is for unhealthy foods.

“Cancer Council Victoria will continue to advocate until we see state government legislation that restricts this form of advertising where our children learn and play,” Martin said.

“If we want to have a healthy, resilient population, we’ve got to focus on our youth and support them to have healthy diets and for them to thrive.”

Australian states and territories have mixed progress and action on this form of legislation, with ACT leading the way on restricting advertising unhealthy food, drink and gambling on all government-run buses and light rail, according to a recent article by Martin and colleagues.

Martin told Croakey that Queensland and Western Australia have made some progress in the space, but changes have not yet been made at a legislative or policy level by these state governments.

Last year, the Western Australian City of Mandurah was lauded as a local leader in the space after the Council introduced a policy that prohibited unhealthy advertising on City-managed lands, including bus shelters and billboards.

Community action

Warrnambool City Council, on the Great Ocean Road about 260 kilometres from Melbourne, signed on to support Food Fight! as part of their ‘municipal health and wellbeing plan’ and to address high levels of overweight and obesity in the region.

Ashish Sitoula, Manager Strategic Community Planning and Policy for Warrnambool City Council, told Croakey they are trying to support the campaign by integrating healthy eating with an already established Active Living program.

“There is significant community engagement around the Active Living component,” Sitoula said and they intend to build upon that to gain momentum on the Healthy Eating component.

Sitoula told Croakey that Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Gardens were already embedded in all Early Learning Centres in the community, and these had facilitated conversations about healthy eating.

“We have received feedback where when children are actively involved in their own food selection and preparation, there is a higher tendency for them to be eating healthy,” Sitoula said.

Social determinants of health

However, while they can deliver campaign messages about healthy eating, the social determinants of health, such as casualised income and poverty, are a significant barrier to people meeting their nutritional requirements, according to Sitoula.

He told Croakey that a report on poverty by the Victorian Council of Social Service and University of Canberra revealed that twelve percent of the residents in the Warrnambool catchment area are living below the poverty line.

The SEIFA index for relative disadvantage also indicates that around one third of Warrnambool residents are living in conditions of relative disadvantage.

“Sometimes junk food is the only option,” Sitoula said.

Research by Southwest Healthcare is looking at the issue of poverty and food insecurity in the community. Warrnambool City Council is aiming to actively involve people in co-design opportunities to ensure their voices and priorities are heard to help mitigate some of the food insecurity challenges.

They are also planning to meet with local transport providers and sporting clubs to discuss the financial implications of removing unhealthy advertising on government owned or leased property and whether there are “alternative revenue mechanisms”.

Sitoula told Croakey it would help if State-based laws legislated against advertising of unhealthy products because “it is easier for municipalities to enforce them”.

“When it is left to consultation, then it becomes really tricky,” he said.

It is still early stages in Warrnambool though. Sitoula said “we are not treating this campaign as a one-off campaign where we will do a social media burst and then go. We’re actually putting in a structured program around this so that there can be a multi-year dialogue that keeps going.”

Strong support

According to Martin, the campaign has garnered the support of more than 30 community, public health and other groups and over 10,000 individuals who have signed the online statement.

The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) supports the Food Fight! Campaign, and through a bold project called FoodPATH (Food Policies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health), has been working to empower Aboriginal communities across Victoria to determine the actions needed to promote good nutrition and healthier food environments in their local communities. For more information on FoodPATH visit VACCHOs website.

The PHAA supports Food Fight because members “believe all Victorians should have the opportunity to lead really long, healthy, productive lives” in environments that support health and wellbeing, Victorian President Anna Nicholson told Croakey.

“It’s really important to protect our kids from that harmful exposure that can influence their choices around eating,” Nicholson said.

The Food Fight! campaign aligns with VicHealth’s Future Healthy initiative, which is all “about harnessing the voices and needs of children and young people in Victoria”, a Program Manager at VicHealth, Emma Saleeba, told Croakey.

VicHealth has a strong focus on “healthy and sustainable food systems” and creating healthier environments for children and young people, which includes dealing with the issue of advertising unhealthy food and drink in places where they work, live and play, according to Saleeba.

Saleeba acknowledged that advertising of unhealthy food and drink is not limited to the physical spaces where children spend time, but also digital and online spaces which are predominantly regulated by Federal Government.

Croakey has recently published articles on the insidious nature of marketing of unhealthy products to children on digital and online spaces, including the role of TikTok social networking platform turning children into “unofficial brand ambassadors” and flaws in a recently updated advertising code.

Indicating support of the Australian community, a recent poll by The Australia Institute found that two-thirds of Australians agree that advertising of junk food should be banned during children’s TV viewing hours.

Saleeba said “the Food Fight! campaign is honing in on some very important quick wins that could be achieved by the Victorian Government” without the need for Federal Government involvement.

Political responses

Croakey sent the following questions to the Victorian Health Minister, Shadow Health Minister and Independent Member of Parliament Fiona Patten for comment:

Croakey is publishing a news feature this week about health sector calls to ban advertising of unhealthy products on state government owned property in Victoria, similar to one that already exists in the ACT.

Do you and your government (or party) support such a ban?

If so, what are you doing to help make that happen?

If not, why don’t you support it? Are you not concerned about promotion of unhealthy products to children?

Patten and the Shadow Health Minister had not replied at time of publication.

A Victorian Government spokesperson responded as follows:

“We want all Victorian children to enjoy a healthy, happy childhood and to lay the foundations for lifelong health and wellbeing.

Last year we launched our five-year action plan to help tens of thousands of Victorian children and young people thrive as they grow through the promotion of healthy eating and active lifestyles.

In October 2021 the Victorian Government launched the Healthy kids, healthy futures – a five-year action plan to support children and young people to be healthy, active and well.

Healthy kids, healthy futures has a strong focus on creating supportive environments for healthy eating and active living, as well as capturing complementary mental wellbeing initiatives.

Central to the plan is ensuring good health and wellbeing is available to all, regardless of postcode, gender or cultural background.

Key initiatives include Vic Kids Eat Well, a new program supporting school and community settings to make simple changes to improve the health of kids. Healthy Kids Advisors will also provide hands-on support for healthy eating in select communities – with joint funding from the Commonwealth Government.”


• This article was funded as part of VicHeath’s ‘Health Equity Champion’ membership of the Croakey Health Media funding consortium. VicHealth had input into the selection of the topic of the article; Croakey maintained editorial control over the research, writing and publication of the article.


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