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Public health advocates accused of oversimplifying the issues around junk food advertising to kids

Health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett responds to a recent Croakey post calling for an end to junk food advertising to children.

Jennifer Doggett writes:

Public health advocates, such as the Obesity Policy Coalition, (OPC) argue that the link between food advertising and children’s food choices supports a junk food ad ban.

For example, the OPC recently stated that “Implementation of [a junk food ad ban] would be a hugely important step toward decreasing children’s exposure to junk food marketing and reducing the burden of obesity in this country.”

However, these claims ignore crucial evidence from three comprehensive reviews of the impact of junk food advertising on children (World Health Organisation 2009, Ofcom 2006 and the US Institute of Medicine 2006) which have failed to find evidence that an advertising ban has any positive impact on children’s overall health and well-being.

In fact, these research reviews found that advertising has only modest and short-term effects on children’s food choices and that there is little evidence for a causal link between junk food advertising and obesity.

For example Ofcom, the independent regulator of communications industries in the UK found that:

Although experiments identify causal relations between advertising and food choice, it remains unclear how these operate along side the complex conditions of daily life at home and school……In both experimental and survey studies, the measured effects of advertising/television on food choices are small. Estimates vary, but some suggest that such exposure accounts for some 2% of the variation in food choice/obesity. Ofcom 2006

Similarly, the report into food marketing to children conducted by the US Institute of Medicine concluded that:

The association between adiposity and exposure to television advertising remains….but the research does not convincingly rule out other possible explanations for the association; therefore, current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity. Institute of Medicine 2006

Of course, a lack of evidence for a link between junk food advertising and obesity in children is not the same as positive evidence for no link.

But equally, the failure of numerous research studies to establish a causal relationship between food advertising and health should not be dismissed as insignificant simply because it is used by some groups to support their case against an advertising ban.

It is possible that opponents of this policy, such as the Australian Food and Grocery Council, are both self-interested and correct to argue that a ban is unlikely to deliver any measurable health benefits to children.

This outcome would occur if there are negative impacts of the ad ban which off-set any positive impact – resulting in no net health gain overall.

For example, in response to an ad ban, parents may relax restrictions on TV watching knowing that their children will no longer be exposed to junk food ads. If this results in children watching more television overall they may become fatter, regardless of their reduced exposure to food advertising (there is a relationship between the amount of television watched and obesity, independent of the impact of advertising).

It is also possible that after enacting a ban, governments may feel they have done enough to combat childhood obesity and therefore be less likely than other jurisdictions to put resources into other (potentially more effective) child-targeted health promotion strategies..

Alternatively, television networks, having lost the political battle on junk food ads, may change their current practice of including health-promoting food messages within their programming (there is good evidence that children get both good and bad messages about food from television) as they have nothing left to gain politically from such measures.

These (and other) potential ‘side-effects’ of a junk food advertising ban are not in themselves arguments against the introduction of this policy. However, they illustrate the need for policy making in this area to reflect the complex relationship between individual and environmental factors that work together to influence health behaviours.

By misrepresenting and over-simplifying the influence of junk food advertising, public health advocates are detracting, rather than contributing, to the challenging task of improving the future health of Australian children.

Comments 9

  1. william magnusson says:

    its not the kids you have to get the message through to, its the parents. they are the ones buying the junk food for the kids

  2. Shooba says:

    Yeah Jen, and there’s no causal relationship between smoking and cancer either. Or Russian Roulette and death. But establishing a causal relationship shouldn’t stop us from acting on a strong correlation.

    I am of the belief that parents need to be the first port of call in preventing childhood obesity. But hey, if ads marketing to kids (and the resulting “MUM CAN I GET THIS!!!!?” at the Supermarket or “DAD CAN WE STOP FOR MACCAS AND A HAPPY MEAL TOY PLEEEEEAAAAASSE!????”) are influencing 10% of parents’ behaviour, leading them to buy the wrong products too often… bring on stronger legislation. No-one loses except the people who make unhealthy food.

    We can tackle it on a number of fronts, too. I don’t see why parental education can’t be the #1 priority while simultaneously restricting advertising.

  3. hptns says:

    OK Shooba,

    So what should be banned and what should be promoted, by the public health lobby, given you seem so sure of yourself? Tell me which foods are bad and what is your evidence base for so asserting?

    For instance, are all the “”heart tick” foods on the AHF www site to be given the blessing of the public health lobby, given the AHF are obviously on your team? Or should one look at them a little more closely and see that a goodly proportion of them have substituted sugar in it’s various forms for saturated fat. Should one look at the contradictions between the evidence papers on the same web site and the products which are given the “heart tick”?

    My suggestion is that it might be better to educate us punters to make our own educated choices, rather than making simplistic top down assertions which are not evidence based, but are based upon so called “common sense”, which is often nothing more than public health lobby group think. Yearning for an earlier simpler time when the public health lobby could do no wrong in the anti-tobacco campaign assists no-one. Sorting out the evidence base before making gross generalisations, is in everyone’s interests.

  4. Shooba says:

    @hptns

    Better minds than mine can come up with nutritional “cutoffs.” I doubt, however, they’d be based on the AHF’s dubious criteria for the Tick.

    From what I’ve read (From the World Health Organization), there is evidence to suggest that reducing the number of ads a kid sees for Maccas will have an impact on how much Maccas they want/get.

    Given the stakes, I would say advertising restrictions are worth a punt, wouldn’t you? After all, as I said earlier… who loses in this situation? Are kids missing out on a formative experience if they can’t see the latest ad for KFC? Nope.

    And, in yet another parallel with smoking… it seems that if the junk food companies invest so heavily in advertising to kids and they’re up in arms about restrictions, then they probably know restrictions will impact their sales. Which, considering the nutritional voids they sell, is precisely the point.

    But people will always think “pffft, advertising doesn’t affect my buying/eating habits” while at the same time, the execs in boardrooms look at the chart showing the sales spike that lines up perfectly with the dates of their latest round of TVCs.

    But yeah, overall I’d think parental responsibility comes first and foremost. Saying no to kids isn’t that difficult.

  5. william magnusson says:

    i know what can be restricted, anything that can be purchased at a drive-through…think about it i have no scientific evedence only my own observations over the last 32 years of being in the food trade. the first drive through in australia was in 1980 at auburn and since the explosion of drive throughs australians have been getting fatter. you dont see the obese people in line inside the so called restuarant ,no they are inline in the drive through. we cant ostracize the obese as iam aware it is a symptom of other things going on in life.perhaps its better to focus on the cause rather than the symptom

  6. Obesity Policy Coalition says:

    See today’s Croakey blog post for the OPC’s response to Jennifer Doggett’s claims. https://croakey.org/the-evidence-backs-action-on-junk-food-advertising-to-kids-but-its-not-all-thats-needed/

    @hptns On the issue of which nutritional criteria would be used as the basis for junk food advertising restrictions, the OPC and other health groups have proposed that nutrient profile criteria should be used. These criteria were developed by the UK Food Standards Agency to identify high fat, sugar and salt foods that are subject to advertising restrictions in the UK (see http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/nutprofr.pdf), and have been adapted for use in Australia by Food Standards Australia New Zealand as criteria for foods carrying health claims (see http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumerinformation/nutritionhealthandrelatedclaims/nutrientprofilingcal3499.cfm).

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pharmaceutical industry
pharmacy
Pregnancy and childbirth
primary health care
Primary Health Networks
private health insurance
quality and safety of health care
rural and remote health
screening
sexual health
social media and healthcare
suicide
surgery
swine flu
telehealth
tests
TGA
trauma
women's health
youth health
Indigenous health
#CTG10
#NTRC
Acknowledgement
cultural safety
Indigenous education
Lowitja Institute
NT Intervention
social and emotional wellbeing
Uluru Statement
WA community closures
News about Croakey
PIJ Commissions 2021
Public health and population health
#PreventiveHealthStrategy
#UnmetNeedsinPublicHealth
air pollution
alcohol
consumer health matters
COVIDwrap
environmental health
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)
food and nutrition
gambling
Government 2.0
gun control
health communications
health impact assessment
Health in All Policies
health inequalities
health literacy
human rights
illicit drugs
injuries
legal issues
marriage equality
Media Doctor Australia
media-related issues
nanny state
National Preventive Health Agency
obesity
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plain packaging
prevention
public health
public interest journalism
road safety
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Web 2.0
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Royal Commission
Social determinants of health
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education
justice
Justice Reinvestment
NBN
Newstart
poverty
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Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
#cripcroakey
#HealthEquity16
#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
#PreventObesity16
#TowardsRecovery
#VMIAC16
#WearablesCEH
#WICC2016
2017 conferences
#17APCC
#ACEM17
#AIDAconf2017
#BTH20