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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.

Comments 18

  1. AFGC says:

    Just like the AMA and PHAA, the Obesity Policy Coalition has got it wrong again on industry codes regarding advertising to children.

    Jane Martin is very wrong and misguided to say that food industry codes have failed to reduce advertising to children. Industry’s Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI) has been very effective in reducing the number of adverts targeting children for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods.

    The OPC, AMA and PHAA are demonstrably wrong in their misguided attacks on self-regulation – industry codes are working, with only a tiny proportion of all HFSS food and beverage ads now targeting children.

    The RCMI code has been so successful that the latest independent research in Australia found only 2.4 per cent of adverts on children’s TV were for high fat, sugar and salt foods – between March to May 2010.

    Read more: http://www.afgc.org.au/media-releases/851-wrong-diagnosis-by-ama-and-phaa-on-industry-codes.html

  2. Gavin Mooney says:

    The issue here is not the industry – it’s the government and the Health Minister, Nicola Roxon. Whether we like it or not the fast food industry is not into health; it is into making fast profits for its shareholders. That is what legally it is supposed to do.

    In October 2009 Ms Roxon gave a speech at the Australian Food and Grocery Council Dinner.

    In that she made her position very clear: “I must also take this opportunity to acknowledge the role that Kate Carnell has played as a member of the [National Preventative] Taskforce, and thank her and all Taskforce members for their hard work. In this room, you will know there was some criticism about Kate remaining on the Taskforce when she took this new role [of CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council]. But I have a high regard for Kate’s ability, and I saw no reason for people to fear industry engagement – quite the opposite.”

    So the Minister saw ‘no reason for people to fear industry engagement – quite the opposite.’

    Now what is “quite the opposite” of people fearing the industry? Loving it? Embracing it? Trusting it? Getting into bed with it?

    My fear is that Ms Roxon has done all of these. How naive can you get? And while you are at it, in making government policy, Ms Roxon, why not tap into the ‘ability’ of the CEOs of Coca-Cola, MacDonald’s, Hungry Jack’s, etc?

  3. Frank Campbell says:

    self-regulation by ANY industry is an oxymoron.

    The corporation I’m watching out the window as I write is savaging the environment. Spraying toxins banned in other countries, compacting soil, drying out Murray catchment streams, ruining good farmland in behalf of a foreign multinational corporation…which is flogging the land now it’s been stripped. All vehicles are unmarked. There’s no website. Just a single phone number. No names. Just a patch of rented concrete with a portable building as HQ…

    That’s why Crikey should be a mole farm, a whistle-blower haven, a creche for assangistas…

    But it’s not. It’s primarily a fumerole for climate cult zealots.

  4. Margo says:

    If you rely on tv for your news, you are more likely to agree with the AFGC that ‘there is no evidence linking food advertising with childhood obesity’ and that it’s more about personal factors. Television, it seems, is the ideal medium for conveying simple messages such as this. Newspapers are more likely than tv to mention system-level factors such as marketing and the environment. In short, researchers have found that where you get your news could play a significant role in determining what you perceive as the best strategy for addressing childhood obesity [‘News Media Framing of Childhood Obesity in the U.S. from 2000 to 2009’ by Colleen L. Barry, Marian Jarlenski, Rachel Grob, Mark Schlesinger and Sarah E. Gollust]. See summary and discussion at: http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/press_releases/2011/barry_media_obesity.html

  5. Caitlin says:

    The peeps at the AFGC must be great at Scrabble, because they sure are hell bent on playing with words!

    While the OPC makes a case about the negative impact of children’s overall exposure to junk food advertising, and presents data that shows industry “self-regulation [of junk food advertising to children] has had no impact on children’s exposure to fast food advertising,” the AFGC continues to push it’s flimsy line that it has reduced the number of ads targeting children, based on analysis of the small window of time per days that’s technically considered ‘Children’s programming’ (this is only one 30 minute TV show per week day, for example).

    Isn’t it time to leave the word games to the iPhone, and started talking the same language?

  6. The Parents Jury says:

    The ‘protection’ from junk food advertising offered by food industry self-regulatory codes is limited at the best of times. The fact the codes do not operate during the times of day most children are watching TV is unfair to parents and children and does little to absolve the industry of their responsibility in tackling Australia’s obesity problem.

    Members of the Parents Jury consistently argue for the regulation of junk food advertising. Almost 94% of parents support a ban on junk food advertising during peak viewing times for children. They also want restrictions on unhealthy food branding of community sporting events and their messages being beamed through social media.

    The message is clear. Parents want to take responsibility for the health of their children by protecting them from junk food advertising. If current advertisements on television are anything to go by, the industry is working against them.

  7. Obesity Policy Coalition says:

    The so-called independent research on the AFGC’s so-called Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative was conducted by…wait for it…the AFGC. And as far as we can see, the only place this research has been published is on the AFGC website. http://www.afgc.org.au/industry-codes/advertising-kids/rcmi-reports-2009.html

    Contrast this with the peer-reviewed study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Sydney and Cancer Council NSW and published in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity. http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/1035_usyd.pdf

    This study found that there was no reduction in the rate of non-core food advertising during children’s peak viewing periods following the introduction of the AFGC’s Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative.

    In any case, it’s little wonder the AFGC’s own research would come up with the figure of 2.4% of ads for unhealthy foods during kids’ programs – given that the AFGC’s definition of kids’ programs exempts the highest rating programs for kids, such as Junior Masterchef (featuring 8-12 year old contestants) and The Simpsons, and given that the nutrition criteria used to assess products advertised by RCMI companies were set by the companies themselves.

    More telling is the absence of any comment from the AFGC about the other claims referred to by the OPC, such as the AFGC’s claimed rate of obesity increase in Quebec that was based on non-existent research.

  8. Shooba says:

    Sorry AFGC, but as long as sites like happymeal.com.au are classified (under industry’s definition) as NOT marketing to children, then I will take everything you say with a grain of blood-pressure-increasing salt.

    Now excuse me while I visit that site, check out the latest toys, plays some awesome games, learn new activities and watch some cartoons…

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