CHILDREN who watch just 2 hours of television a day see 18 hours of junk food advertisements each year — the equivalent of 3 full schooldays being enticed to eat unhealthily.
Systematic reviews on food marketing to children indicate that food and beverage marketing influences the preferences and purchase requests of children, influences consumption at least in the short term, is a likely contributor to less healthy diets and may contribute to negative diet-related health outcomes among children and youth.
Many drivers contribute to the high rates of obesity that we have in Australia; however, repetitious and persuasive marketing contributes to normalising junk food and a skewing of the community’s understanding of what makes up a normal diet.
While the solution to obesity is multifaceted, we urgently need to see the introduction of compulsory regulations that ban junk food advertisements to children. So you can understand our disappointment last week when the Senate voted down the Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising (Broadcast Amendment) Bill 2010.
However, the announcement from the AMA that it strongly supports a ban on the broadcast advertising of junk food to children was heartening.
The need for those involved in health care to provide a united voice to balance the well financed and influential industry lobby is vital. Government regulation of junk food marketing to children is essential if we have any hope of reducing health inequalities and is a cost-effective intervention to reduce childhood obesity.
There is some limited regulation around advertising to children, but these industry-developed codes are voluntary and limited by loopholes. For example, the food and advertising industries have decided the definition of advertising “primarily directed to children” is based on the percentage of child viewers. In many instances, this does not cover popular early evening shows that often have a high children’s audience.
Increasingly, social media and product-branded internet sites are enticing children with games, giveaways and promotions. These new forms of advertising are even more difficult to monitor and are barely covered in the present voluntary codes. As well, individual companies can set their own nutritional standards, thereby setting the bar as high or as low as they want in order to ensure they can continue to advertise their products.
Limiting or banning junk food marketing is a key step towards primary prevention of overweight, and one that health care professionals should be eager to get behind. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure is nowhere more evident than when considering the high risks of allowing the problem of childhood obesity to continue into adulthood, especially with the higher risks of a range of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
In 2009, Australia’s National Preventative Health Taskforce recommended that definitions and criteria for determining unhealthy food and beverages be developed and the impact of voluntary self-regulation be monitored, evaluated and escalated to enforced legislation, if the voluntary forms are unsuccessful. The federal government has acted on some of the taskforce recommendations and will use it to guide future actions, which makes the Senate decision last week even more frustrating.
The World Health Organization has endorsed a set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children and called for international action to reduce the impact on children of marketing foods high in fat, sugar or salt.
Effectively fighting childhood obesity begins with the promotion of healthy environments and the prevention of disease. Health professionals already play an essential role in helping to prevent childhood obesity. By continuing to use their influence within the community and getting behind the call for effective regulations of junk food marketing to children, we can convince the government that more decisive action is needed.
Ms Kathy Chapman is a nutritionist and Director of Health Strategies at Cancer Council NSW.
Posted 7 March 2011