A recent study has revealed that Australian children are exposed to the same number of unhealthy food and drink advertisements as they were five years ago, despite the introduction of self-regulatory initiatives by the food industry in 2009. The study, released in February 2017 by Cancer Council NSW and Sydney University researchers, found that 44 percent of food advertisements viewed by children were for unhealthy foods, with fast food ads being most frequent, followed by chocolate and confectionary, and sugary drinks.
Wendy Watson, the lead author of the study and Cancer Council’s nutrition programs manager, said the food industry’s voluntary codes are full of easily exploitable loopholes that allow companies to continue to advertise unhealthy products to children without consequence.
“Previous studies have highlighted loopholes within the food industry’s self-regulatory initiatives. The definitions of what constitutes ‘unhealthy food’ and when an ad is considered ‘advertising to children’ are not protecting children,” Watson says.
In 2009, the Australian Food and Grocery Council launched two voluntary codes, the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative and Quick Service Restaurant Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children, with the aim of reducing ads targeting children for unhealthy products. There is no specific government regulation, however, that addresses unhealthy food advertising to children in Australia.
“For almost eight years now, junk food companies have been able to take advantage of these weak, self-defined codes because there has been nothing to stop them from doing so. We will continue to see no change in the rate of unhealthy food advertising to children unless government takes action,” Watson continues.
The Australian Obesity Policy Coalition highlights how these voluntary codes have little impact because they define television “primarily directed at children” as P-, C-, and G-rated shows that air in the morning or early evening. The definition fails to cover popular television shows, such as sporting games or reality television, watched by a large number of children during family time-slots of 6pm to 9pm.
Television advertising remains a primary marketing channel for the food industry to promote their products, with a 33 percent increase in the rates of food advertising on Australian television since 2011. While there has been an increase in healthy and miscellaneous food advertising (which includes supermarket advertising, for example), there has been no reduction in unhealthy food advertising. Food advertising to children through other media, such as internet, print, or outdoor marketing, is also self-regulated by the food and advertising industries through voluntary codes.
Research has consistently demonstrated that food advertising influences children’s food preferences, what they demand, and what they subsequently consume. This is likely to contribute to poorer diets and health outcomes, including overweight, obesity, and other diet-related diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Currently, one in four Australian children are overweight and obese.
The Australian Federal Government, food and advertising industries, and free-to-air broadcasters continue to favor industry self-regulation and prescribe personal and parental responsibility for fast food consumption.
“Cancer Council NSW is calling on government to take long-awaited action to regulate to protect children from the impact and influence of junk food advertising, so that they can take a healthier path into adult life,” states Watson. This position is backed by Australian public health and nutrition experts, medical and health foundations, and consumer groups, claiming government regulation that reduces junk food advertising to children is urgently needed as part of a range of measures to address childhood obesity.