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Junk food advertising to kids: it’s time to call it a day

Self-regulation by the food industry, when it comes to the promotion of junk food to kids, is a big fat flop, a fizzle and a failure.

That seems to be the consensus amongst public health and medical organisations, and they are stepping up calls for an end to advertising of junk to children.

A new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Children, Adolescents, Obesity and the Media”, (published online this week and coming out in the July issue of Pediatrics), recommends that paediatricians work with other child health advocates at the local, state and national levels for:

  • a ban on junk food advertising;
  • restrictions on interactive food advertising to children via digital media;
  • funding for research into the health and psychosocial effects of heavy media use in children; and
  • more prosocial media platforms and resources for children that encourage them to choose healthy foods.

Meanwhile, the Australian Medical Association and the Public Health Association of Australia, amongst others, are also pushing for a ban on junk food advertising to children.

In a decade or so, perhaps the wider community will look back with bemusement on the days when big companies were allowed to push unhealthy foods on susceptible young children at a time of widespread concerns about obesity and poor nutrition.

Below are two related articles:

Kathy Chapman, co-author of a new study documenting children’s continuing exposure to junk food ads, calls for “clear and meaningful Government regulations that protect children at times they are actually watching television…”.

Jane Martin, Senior Policy Adviser, Obesity Policy Coalition, demolishes recent fight-back from the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

***

Sugar coated regulations fail to save children from fast food ads

Kathy Chapman, Director Health Strategies, Cancer Council NSW, writes:

Fast food companies have failed to clean up their act under voluntary self regulations, with the total number of fast foods ads increasing on television since 2009, and no change in children’s exposure to unhealthy fast food ads. It proves what many of us feared; that the industry only pays lip service to effective and responsible advertising.

New research undertaken by the University of Sydney and Cancer Council this week (published in the Medical Journal of Australia), shows that children who watch up to three hours of television per day are exposed to more than 1640 fast food ads per year – a jump of more than 430 ads per year since industry regulations were introduced in August 2009.

This is contrary to the recommendations put forward by the World Health Organisation that any standards should be to reduce children’s exposure to fast-food and unhealthy food and drink advertising.

Does this come as a surprise? Not really.

When seven major fast food companies established the Australian Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children (QSRI) in August 2009 it was to appease community concern on fast food advertising to children. However, this self-regulation only applies to a very narrow range of advertised foods. These regulations for example, don’t cover “family meals” sold by fast food outlets which will be eaten by both parents and their children. A loophole the industry no doubt takes advantage of.

But let’s face it; junk food companies have a vested interest in increasing profits from their products and allowing the food industry to self regulate is like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse.

And so junk food ads targeting children will continue to slip through regulatory loopholes and pass subjective and ineffective  restrictions – all to the detriment of our children. The consistent scientific evidence shows us that food marketing influences what children want and what they ultimately eat and drink.

Surely it’s time for this sugar coated voluntary code to be scrapped and replaced with clear and meaningful Government regulations that protect children at times they are actually watching television (not just limited to after school!) and reduce their exposure to the wrong types of food.

It’s time to stop undermining parent’s influence over their children’s eating habits. Parents are up against an unchecked, marketing-savvy, multimillion dollar junk food industry and it’s not surprising that more than eight out of ten parents believe children should be protected from this type of marketing.

With one in four Australian children being overweight or obese – it’s critical as a society we stop putting profit ahead of our health.

For more information go to www.junkbusters.com.au.

***

How long can the Australian Food and Grocery Council peddle junk claims?

Jane Martin, Senior Policy Adviser, Obesity Policy Coalition writes:

Kate Carnell’s claim that self-regulation of junk food advertising to children is “working” sounds rather flimsy in light of new research published in the Medical Journal of Australia over the weekend that shows that self-regulation has had no impact on children’s exposure to fast food advertising.

It’s no surprise that Ms Carnell, CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council and chief lobbyist for the processed food industry, would be opposed to effective regulation of junk food advertising. After all, her job is to protect the commercial interests of the processed food industry, and reducing children’s exposure to junk food advertising would be contrary to those interests.

Nor is it surprising that Ms Carnell would consider self-regulation to be working: her main interest is in the effectiveness of self-regulation for keeping meaningful government regulation at bay – and on this measure, it is fair to say that, so far, self-regulation is working.

So, perhaps it should also come as no surprise that a number of Ms Carnell’s claims about junk food advertising are somewhat fishy.

Ms Carnell’s claim that there is no evidence linking food advertising with childhood obesity were repeated on Lateline last week.

“There is no evidence at all to link food advertising to obesity. Zero. Nowhere in the world.”(see full transcript).

And Ms Carnell’s claim in The Australian last month that the Obesity Policy Coalition’s proposal for restrictions on junk food advertising to children “isn’t backed by solid research or science in the world”. .

In fact, these claims are contrary to the assessments of the evidence by peak international health agencies, including the World Health Organization and the US Institute of Medicine, and the consensus of Australian public health experts.

In peddling these claims, Ms Carnell consistently neglects to mention the four systematic reviews of the evidence on the impact of food advertising on children that have been undertaken in the past few years – including two reviews conducted for the World Health Organization.

These reviews have all concluded that the evidence shows that food advertising influences children’s food requests, preferences and consumption patterns. (See the most recent World Health Organization review).

On the basis of the evidence, the World Health Organization has classified heavy marketing of energy-dense foods as a ‘probable’ factor promoting obesity. To put this in context, ‘probable’ is the WHO’s second highest level of evidence classification after ‘convincing’, and is used to denote that a relationship is probably causal in nature.

And as a result of this classification, the WHO has made a series of recommendations for all countries to take steps to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising as a strategy for preventing overweight and obesity. These recommendations were recently endorsed by the World Health Assembly.

Another of Ms Carnell’s favoured claims – repeated yesterday in response to the MJA study – is that bans on junk food advertising to children in Sweden and Quebec haven’t made any difference to childhood obesity levels.

To support this, Ms Carnell refers to research that doesn’t exist. In this article in The Australian, Carnell claims, “… in Quebec after the [advertising] ban was implemented, the prevalence of obesity tripled among boys and doubled for girls”, and says that this is based on “research for the Australian Council of Health Service Executives”.

But the Australian Council of Health Service Executives (now the Australian Council of Health Services Managers) has not conducted any research in this area, and is not a research organisation.

Ms Carnell seems to be referring to this paper given to a 2008 conference of the Queensland branch of the ACHSE, which refers to data showing that obesity rates across Canada tripled for boys and doubled for girls. However, the paper says nothing at all about obesity rates in Quebec.

The paper does say that current overseas advertising policies ‘are not strong enough to promote positive health outcomes’, i.e. because the policies are weak, children are still exposed to lots of unhealthy food advertising. And the paper’s main conclusion is that “[c]hildren in Australia require better protection from television advertisements for energy-dense and low-nutrient foods”.

In Quebec, the impact of the advertising restriction is limited because English-speaking children are still exposed to large amounts of junk food advertising beamed in by US stations based outside Quebec where the restrictions don’t apply.

But despite this, data indicates that Quebec’s combined childhood overweight/obesity rate is significantly lower than the national rate, and the second lowest of the Canadian provinces.

Research has also found that French-speaking children, who mainly watch French-speaking Quebec stations, have lower obesity rates than English-speaking children who are exposed to unhealthy food advertising on the US stations. 

Cultural factors may account for at least some of this difference.

But a 2011 empirical study found that French-speaking households in Quebec were significantly less likely to purchase fast food than French-speaking households in Ontario, whereas there was no significant difference in fast food purchasing between English-speaking households in Quebec and Ontario.

The authors concluded that the study ‘provides evidence that a ban on advertising targeting children can be effective in lowering or moderating consumption’.

In calling for effective junk food advertising restrictions covering times when children watch TV, the OPC is backed by 84% of the Australian public, as well as all the leading public health groups in the country – such respected groups as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, representing the National Heart Foundation, Cancer Council Australia, Diabetes Australia and others.

Safe to say, the interest of these groups is in evidence-based policies to protect the health of Australian children, not in preserving profits.