Keep junk food away from our kids
Today we would be shocked if cigarette and alcohol companies targeted their advertising to children.
We would be shocked because the evidence is there to support such outrage. We know that tobacco kills and that alcohol consumption can have grave short-term and long-term health consequences.
So shouldn’t we be equally shocked when our children are targeted for junk food marketing? The evidence is there.
One in four Australian children is either overweight or obese. A high proportion of overweight children will go on to be overweight adults. Obesity is a risk factor for cancer, as well as many other chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes and is contributing to a health epidemic, the likes of which we have never seen before.
Restricting unhealthy food marketing to children is vital to preventing obesity. Research shows that children don’t fully understand the intent of food marketing, but the food marketing they see generates positive beliefs about the foods advertised, while influencing what they want to eat, and what they ask parents to buy.
A joint report by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization concluded that the heavy marketing of fast food outlets and energy dense, micronutrient poor foods and beverages is a probable causal factor in childhood overweight and obesity.
Despite this evidence, the food industry has been quick to develop their own advertising regulatory codes, a system that is clearly inadequate and provides little protection for our children.
Since the introduction of the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s (AFGC) self-regulatory initiative, children still see the same amount of television advertising for unhealthy foods as they did before the code was introduced in 2009, according to a recent study by Sydney University and Cancer Council NSW.
There has been limited uptake of this industry initiative by food companies and the industry-defined regulations are inadequate, with vague definitions that are open to interpretation.
For example, a recent complaint to the Advertising Standards Board about an LCM commercial featuring children in a school playground talking about the snack, was dismissed, as the advertisement was determined to be directed to adults.
The nutritional standards that are used for the industry self-regulatory initiative are able to be developed by individual companies. Therefore they are able to set the bar as high or as low as they want to ensure they can continue to slip their products in.
Junk food advertisers are among the savviest marketers in the industry, and allowing the food industry to self-manage regulations is like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse. Junk food ads targeting children continue to slip through regulatory loopholes and pass subjective restrictions.
We are seeing an increase in advertisements featuring the brand but not the “unhealthy product”, or advertisements during TV programs when a lot of children are watching but to avoid the regulations, the advertisements feature teenagers.
Worryingly, it is not just television where we are coming across objectionable advertising that appeals to children. New technologies such as the internet and less obvious places such as the supermarket and even school sports are places where junk food advertising could be sneaking in to children’s lives.
Parents are concerned about their children being targeted by the volume of junk food advertising. They are frustrated because the process of lodging complaints is confusing and time-consuming as it requires a complex navigation of the various codes and regulatory bodies. Even if parents invest their time and energy in negotiating the process, most complaints are dismissed and if upheld there are no consequences; companies merely withdraw the advertisement, if it hasn’t already finished its run.
Almost all of the complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau in recent months have been rejected – usually over a definition of what constitutes ‘targeted to children’.
Cancer Council NSW is calling on the Government to put more effective regulations in place that will limit exposure of junk food marketing in children’s environments. This is an issue we really need action on to ensure that the avalanche of objectionable food marketing is stopped before the consequences for our children, their future health and the health of our nation become too great.
One way to convince governments is through public support. Cancer Council NSW has launched the Junkbusters website (junkbusters.com.au) to make it easier for concerned parents to complain about inappropriate junk food marketing. We urge parents and concerned members of the community to log on, voice your concerns to let those in charge know it is not acceptable to advertise junk food to our children and help to close the door to the hen house once and for all.
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