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When will we stop advertising junk food to children?

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In Australia, over a quarter of children are overweight or obese, and incidences of type 2 diabetes and (non-alcoholic) fatty liver are becoming more common in younger people- conditions that historically presented later in age and in alcoholics respectively. This situation hasn’t happened overnight, it has been brewing for a while. Our children are eating more nutrient-depleted, high-energy foods and moving less. They are spending more time in front of screens, which exposes them to advertisements for said high-energy foods.

Giving children the best start to a healthy life means guiding them and leading by example when it comes to things like diet, physical activity and screen time. Unfortunately, this is proving to be easier said than done. We are up against big food giants that target marketing to children and a government that is failing to make any substantial progress in combating the rise of chronic diseases, especially in our children. Recently the Australian Medical Association (AMA) put forward a set of recommendations 一 which align with numerous other health advocates and peak bodies 一 that include implementing a sugar tax, eliminating unhealthy foods in healthcare settings and banning junk food advertising to children.

Currently, in Australia, there are two self-regulatory initiatives managed by Australian Food and Grocery Council that address food and beverage advertising to children; the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative and the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative for Responsible Advertising. They are designed to cover products marketed to children in a retail setting and in quick service food outlets, respectively.  Signatories to these codes include the likes of McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Campbell Arnott’s, Mars, Nestle and KFC.

So how effective has this been in keeping our children’s eyes, minds and tummies junk food free? A study conducted last year by the Cancer Council found that during peak viewing times, children were exposed to three unhealthy adverts each hour. These findings were the same as a similar study five years prior. Additionally, 44% of food adverts were for unhealthy foods. Meanwhile, off the screen and beyond the restaurant, the shiny golden arches are still able to support school events so long as the event is ‘related to educational purposes or related to healthy lifestyle or physical activity’.

Across the ditch, New Zealand has similar voluntary codes for advertising to children, and like Australia, their children are also still highly exposed to junk food advertising. Using portable cameras to get a ‘child’s-eye-view’, a study reported that children were being exposed to junk food advertising up to 30 times a day across the various media. A team from the University of Auckland is now exploring the extent that unhealthy food is being advertised at teenager’s fingertips by applying an extension to mobile phones of volunteers.

England’s situation is not much different with studies reporting that children are seeing up to 12 junk food advertisements per hour during family programs like The Voice and The Simpsons.

Since 2009, when the self-regulating codes were established in Australia, there has been no improvement in what is being advertised to children because of loopholes. According to the codes, ‘advertising to children’ is when the audience is comprised of over 35% children. This is a flawed approach as large volumes of children watch family programs and sports games 一 in which junk food advertising permits 一 but they don’t account for 35% of the audience.

The food giants are winning and our children’s health is not, this needs to be reversed. Research by another group from the University of Auckland is exploring the impact that ‘healthy’ marketing could have on children, with the hope that it can create opportunities to push healthy products and lifestyle choices. Perhaps down the track, healthy marketing will replace the unhealthy we are seeing now? However, the first step has to be banning junk food advertising to children.

By Jennifer Peters, ANutr
Public Health Nutritionist

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