Introduction by Croakey: On World Obesity Day a new report calls on Australian governments to protect children from unhealthy food marketing and highlights research that seven in 10 adults want their children protected from junk food advertising.
The Obesity Policy Coalition report, ‘Brands off our kids’, says children should be able to learn, play and live in a world that promotes their health and wellbeing, but this is currently not the case.
COVID-19 priorities have pushed obesity prevention from the mainstream view, despite the pandemic reinforcing the importance of prevention and research showing that people above a healthy weight are more likely to experience more severe outcomes from COVID-19.
The Obesity Collective today called for up-to-date national clinical practice guidelines on how to assess, help and manage people with obesity since the earlier guidelines lapsed in 2018.
Paediatrician Louise Baur, President Elect for the World Obesity Federation, said: “While some people joke about ‘COVID kilos’, the pandemic has aggravated weight issues for many Australians.”
In this article below, Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, outlines the ‘Brands off our kids’ report and the actions governments can take to protect children from unhealthy food marketing.
Jane Martin writes:
The health of our population has never been in the spotlight so much as over the past year. Brought to our collective attention by the devastating and far-reaching impact of COVID-19, we have seen how public health intervention by governments (or lack thereof) has affected the lives of billions of people, here in Australia and across the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also reinforced the importance of prevention and of supporting our population to have healthy and productive lives. It has shone a light on obesity in particular, with research showing that people above a healthy weight are more likely to experience more severe outcomes from COVID-19.
In Australia, perhaps due to our relative success in managing the pandemic, obesity prevention has received little attention among the avalanche of COVID-19 commentary. The focus on our immediate pandemic response and economic recovery is critical, but we must also look further ahead and consider the future we want to create for all Australians, especially our children.
In some countries the importance of obesity prevention has been a focus – in the United Kingdom the personal experience of Prime Minister Boris Johnson was reflected in world leading commitments to prevent obesity, including strong measures to protect children from unhealthy food marketing. Controls are now being explored to protect children from unhealthy food marketing on digital platforms.
In Australia, public health experts are calling for a similar approach, and are hopeful that the long awaited release of the National Obesity Strategy, together with the overarching National Preventive Health Strategy, will provide a strong foundation to support implementation of effective policy and regulatory reforms and significantly increased funding.
A key focus of public health groups working to prevent obesity in Australia is on reforms to protect children from unhealthy food marketing. We know that to achieve real change, we need to create an environment that supports and promotes healthy diets, starting with the messages our children see and hear about food every day.
Today, on World Obesity Day, the Obesity Policy Coalition has released a new report calling on Australian governments to act without delay. ‘Brands off our kids!’ sets out four key government actions to protect children from unhealthy food marketing and highlights new research finding that seven in 10 Australian adults want governments to protect children from unhealthy food marketing.
All children should be able to learn, play and live in a world that promotes their health and wellbeing, setting the foundation for a healthy future. But this is currently not the case. The processed food industry spends millions every year marketing its unhealthy products to children, making unhealthy food seem normal and desirable, and undermining everything we know about the importance of eating a healthy diet.
As processed food companies seek to increase their profits, it is our children’s health that is at risk. At a time when around a quarter of Australian children are above a healthy weight, and the vast majority aren’t eating a healthy diet, governments across Australia must step in to protect children and put children’s health above the food industry’s commercial interests.
To date, Australia’s approach has been to allow the food and advertising industries to set their own rules for how they market unhealthy food to children. Not surprisingly this doesn’t work. The processed food industry can’t be put in charge of protecting our children’s health because their interests lie elsewhere. Our community expects governments to step in, as they rightly do in so many areas to ensure that children are protected.
So what should be done? In ‘Brands off our kids!’ The Obesity Policy Coalition outlines four key government actions to protect Australian children from unhealthy food marketing.
Actions for a childhood free from unhealthy food marketing
- Ensure TV, radio and cinemas are free from unhealthy food marketing from 6am to 9.30pm
The processed food industry shows three unhealthy food ads for every hour of television during children’s peak television viewing. A time-based approach, similar to that committed to by the UK Government, is essential to capture the times when the highest numbers of children are watching. This will ensure children can watch their favourite TV shows and see movies without sitting through ads for unhealthy food. Online streaming and on-demand content must also be included.
- Prevent unhealthy food companies from targeting children
Processed food companies are currently allowed to directly target children in many ways – cartoon characters on packets of sugary cereals, free toys given away with children’s fast food meals, children’s activity apps designed to build brand awareness of unhealthy food brands. These tactics must stop – all children should be able to go about their lives without the processed food industry targeting them with marketing for unhealthy food.
- Ensure public spaces and events are free from unhealthy food marketing
Children should be able to go to school, to play and watch sport and go to public events without exposure to unhealthy food marketing. Instead, processed food companies put billboards at train stations and sponsor major sporting events. Processed food companies should not be allowed to promote unhealthy food in places they know that children go to as part of their normal lives and are guaranteed to see it, including on public transport, at public outdoor locations, public facilities, cultural institutions, public events and shopping centres.
- Protect children from digital marketing of unhealthy food
Like all of us, digital media is an important part of children’s lives. They use it for education, communication and for entertainment – and should be able to do so without being bombarded with marketing for unhealthy food. When Australian teens go online, they see almost 100 promotions for unhealthy food every week – this must stop. To protect children online, unhealthy food must not be advertised on digital media, unless it can be guaranteed that no children will see it. There will be very few circumstances where that guarantee can be made.
The way forward
The need and support for urgent action is clear. Now we turn to our governments to meet community expectations and protect our children’s health. Australia must put our children’s health above the profits of the processed food industry. The time to act is now.
To support the Obesity Policy Coalition’s four actions to protect children from unhealthy food marketing, you can sign up to support Brands off our kids here.
Jane Martin is Executive Manager, Obesity Policy Coalition