Childhood obesity needs action

Obesity in children has reached epidemic proportions.
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  • Updated:22 Sep 2006

01 .Introduction

Toddlers eating

In brief

  • Obesity in children has reached epidemic proportions. The intense marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children contributes to the problem.
  • Children need better protection from unhealthy food marketing, and a large proportion of people we surveyed think the government should help.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2006 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

Childhood obesity — the alarming facts

  • Between 1985 and 1997, the prevalence of obesity trebled among young Australians, and numbers have continued to increase at an alarming rate.
  • It’s been estimated that one in five Australian children are overweight or obese. Recently published figures from NSW suggest it could be as many as one in four.
  • Obese children have a 25–50% chance of remaining obese in adulthood, putting them at greater risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease — conditions that place a substantial burden on the health system as well as on the individuals affected.
  • Dire predictions have been made that today’s children might be the first generation to die at an earlier age than their parents.
  • Probably the most immediate consequence of being overweight, as perceived by the children themselves, is social discrimination, associated with poor self-esteem and depression.

Our survey — key findings

CHOICE wanted to find out what ordinary people think is causing this obesity epidemic, and also what they think can be done to turn it around — and whether this gels with what the food and advertising industries and government would have us believe.

Of our survey respondents:

  • 77% were of the opinion that poor diet was causing more Australian children to be overweight (more than the 65% who named exercise reasons), and 47% of them specifically mentioned too much junk food as a cause.
  • 65% thought government should step in to restrict TV advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks to children, and a further 24% wanted it stopped completely.
  • 83% thought the government should go beyond regulating food advertising to kids and also require manufacturers to make children’s food healthier.

Parents are willing to acknowledge that they need to do more to prevent children becoming overweight, but 69% think the government needs to do more too.

See the results tables for details.

Take action

If you think the government should regulate the marketing of unhealthy food to children, help push the agenda by sending a letter to the federal health minister, Tony Abbott. Click here to take action.

What’s being done to tackle childhood obesity?

  • The Federal Government has contributed funding towards a national child nutrition and physical activity survey to collect crucial information that will help develop strategies to fight obesity and chronic disease; however, the results won’t be available until late 2007.
  • New beverage industry guidelines could see sugary soft drinks gone from primary school canteens, and halt the marketing of these products directly to children under 12. But voluntary guidelines can only achieve so much.
  • The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is set to review Children’s Television Standards. This should touch on the role of food advertising in childhood obesity but the process could take up to 18 months to complete.
  • A new voluntary food and beverage advertising and marketing communications code has been proposed. The advertising and food industries say it will deliver world’s best practice in industry self-regulation but CHIOCE thinks it’s unlikely it will adequately protect children. Food marketing regulation has more on this.

CHOICE verdict

Given the grave nature of childhood obesity, CHOICE thinks immediate and urgent precautionary measures are warranted, in the form of government regulation of food marketing to children across all media.

  • The current environment of unhealthy food promotion contradicts public health messages and guidelines, and is undermining public health and parenting efforts to encourage healthy eating.
  • Regulating food marketing to children will provide better protection for those children whose parents have so far succumbed to the pester power and toddler tantrums for chocolate, not fruit.
  • A system that favours self-regulation of the food advertising industry is unlikely to provide parents with the support they need in the battle to control their children’s diets.
  • Regulation may even encourage manufacturers to develop healthier kids’ foods.

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CHOICE commissioned Newspoll to conduct a telephone survey on childhood obesity. Interviews were carried out nationwide mid-year, and the 1200 respondents were aged 18 or over. 33% of them were the parent or legal guardian of one or more child under 18.

Figure 1: In your opinion, what is causing more children to be overweight?
(Respondents could name more than one reason.)

Figure 2: In general, do you think parents/governments could be doing more to prevent chidren becoming overweight?


Figure 3: Some people have suggested things government could do to help reduce the number of overweight children. Total in favour?


Table notes

Graphs are not to scale.

03.What causes obesity?


In simple terms, overweight and obesity are the result of an energy imbalance, where more energy (kilojoules) is taken in than is used up. Anything that affects what children are eating or how much exercise they’re getting can potentially add to this imbalance.

Our obesogenic environment

One of the reasons why the obesity problem has reached epidemic proportions is the so-called ‘obesogenic’ (or ‘obesity-promoting’) environment we’re living in, which has come about as a result of technological, social, economic and environmental changes.

Many factors have been suggested as contributing to this obesogenic environment, including:

  • The increasing use of motor vehicles.
  • Increased time spent on a computer playing games and surfing the internet.
  • The lack of safe playing areas and other safety concerns.
  • Changes in family structure and work patterns so that parents are busier and may have less time to spend with their families and on meal preparation.
  • Easy access to kilojoule-laden foods and drinks.
  • The frequent promotion of these sorts of foods through television, the internet and other media.

Is your child overweight or obese?

Your child's body mass index (BMI) is an indicator of whether or not your child is overweight, and a useful tool is NSW Health's Children & Youth BMI Calculator.

Please note: BMI is only one way of measuring overweight and obesity, and it changes substantially with age in children. It's recommended that changes over time will provide more meaningful information. If you're worried about your child's weight, seek advice from a doctor (GP or paediatrician), dietitian or other health profession.

Who's responsible?

  • The federal health minister, Tony Abbott, has repeatedly said it’s parents who are ultimately responsible for what their kids eat. But a major obstacle for parents is the heavy marketing of unhealthy foods to children, which the World Health Organization has highlighted as a consistent factor in promoting weight gain and obesity.
  • Parents are battling to provide a healthy diet for their children, and the increasing pervasiveness of promotions targeting children — via the internet, in the supermarket or through TV advertising, for example — leaves parents feeling defeated at every turn. See Food marketing for details.
  • Our survey revealed that parents are willing to acknowledge that they need to do more to prevent children becoming overweight, but 69% think the government needs to do more too.

Lack of healthy choices

In order for parents to choose healthy foods for their children, healthy choices need to be available. But from what we've seen in some product categories, healthy kids' foods are in the minority.

Kids' lunchbox snacks

  • Only a quarter of the 100 or so products reviewed met all our nutrition criteria, with large numbers containing too much sugar or saturated fat.

Kids' breakfast cereals

  • Out of 150 breakfast cereals included in our last survey, the eight most sugary cereals were ones aimed at kids, all with the equivalent of two to three teaspoons of sugar in a serve and very little fibre.

See the full breakfast cereals article.

It’s no wonder 83% of our survey respondents thought the government should go beyond regulating food advertising to kids and also require manufacturers to make children’s food healthier (see our survey results for details).

04.Food marketing facts


Too many unhealthy ads

Studies have repeatedly found that children are bombarded by ads for fast-food restaurants, chocolates, confectionery and other unhealthy foods. And food promotion does influence food choices — food companies would hardly spend millions of dollars on advertising each year if it didn’t. Some interesting facts:

  • The most recent study found there were nine ads for high-fat/high-sugar foods per hour during the TV programs most popular with 5–12-year-olds.
  • On the other hand the number of ads for core foods recommended in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (fruit and vegetables, for example) is disproportionately low — a ratio of less than one in five ads, according to research published in July.
  • The top 10 food advertisers in 2004, which included Cadbury Confectionery and Nestlé Australia, spent around $410 million advertising their products.
  • Cadbury Schweppes, Competitive Foods (HUNGRY JACK’S and DOMINO’S PIZZAS), McDonald's, Nestlé Australia and Yum Restaurants (KFC and PIZZA HUT) were among the top 50 advertisers across all advertising categories.

Fat TV ads

 The top 10 most advertised brands during children’s TV viewing hours over one week in May this year were:

  • CADBURY chocolates (177 ads), including Cherry Ripe (50), Boost (48) and Dairy Milk (42)
  • McDONALD’S (109)
  • KFC (88)
  • DOLMIO pasta sauces (67)
  • SANITARIUM Weet-Bix breakfast cereal range (63), including Up & Go breakfast drink
  • NESTLÉ Nesquik breakfast cereal (61)
  • PANDAROO Asian food range (56)
  • NESTLÉ NESLAC Toddler Gold (53)
  • LENARD’S chicken products (49)

Source: Australian Centre for Health Promotion

Marketing via cyberspace

Children are also being targeted via the internet, where advertisers can capture their attention for several minutes rather than just 30 seconds. Food marketing: child’s play? has more on this.

Recent analysis of online food marketing in America found that:

  • 85% of the top food brands advertised to children on TV also used branded websites to market to children online, and the majority of these were brands of chocolate, confectionery and other sweet or salty snacks.
  • Advergames (online games in which a company’s product or brand characters are featured) were found on 73% of these websites.
  • The sites also employed a range of other advertising and marketing tactics, including giving kids the opportunity: to participate in viral marketing; giving them on-demand access to TV ads; and, incentives to buy more of their products. So whether children are playing a game or engaging in other website activities, they’re continually being exposed to the brand.

No regulation currently extends to these forms of online marketing, but it’s clear that it’s needed.

05.Food marketing regulation


Proposed regulation not adequate

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is set to review the Children’s Television Standards, and this no doubt will touch on the role of food advertising in childhood obesity, and how well children’s interests are being protected. But this process is likely to take up to 18 months to complete.

A new voluntary food and beverage advertising and marketing communications code has also been proposed, which the advertising and food industries say will deliver world’s best practice in industry self-regulation.

However, from what we’ve seen of it (the ‘pre-finalisation’ version just before we published), it’s unlikely it will adequately protect children. Here's why:

  • It won’t stop the marketing of unhealthy foods during children’s programs
  • It doesn't address the dominance of ads for unhealthy versus healthy foods.
  • It's intended to cover the whole spectrum of ways that food is marketed to children, from the use of children’s characters, competitions and giveaways on labels through to promotions in fast-food outlets and via the internet. But while it’s important that this happens, it’s not clear how the code will achieve this.
  • The draft code we saw also lacks precise definitions with regard to breaches, making it difficult to monitor non-compliance and carry out enforcement. Recent research suggests that breaches of the current code are common. Over four days last year, 194 breaches of the Children’s Television Standards were identified in food ads (according to the researchers’ interpretation) shown on TV between 7am and 9pm. The majority of these were the misuse of premium offers to market a product — an ad for a fast-food restaurant’s kids’ meal focusing more on the toy than on the meal, for example.
  • Under existing arrangements, anyone can make a complaint about a food ad, but the mechanisms aren’t straightforward or widely publicised and even the federal health minister has admitted that people might not be aware of them.

What parents need is effective support in the battle to control their children’s diets, and CHOICE thinks a system that favours self-regulation of the food advertising industry is unlikely to provide it.

Tighter regulation needed

Ultimately the promotion of unhealthy foods to kids is influencing food choices, persuading children to demand sugary cereals, fatty fast food and kilojoule-laden soft drinks, and normalising them as a significant part of their diet. In doing so it’s contributing to the incidence of overweight and obese children.

There’s a strong groundswell of public opinion demanding tighter regulation, spearheaded by the organisations that have joined together to form the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children. These sentiments were reflected in our survey results.

There also appeared to be support from some state and territory health ministers when they met to debate the issue in July. The debate was cut short, however, when John Howard intervened and health ministers were advised that media regulation is a matter for ACMA — not the state health ministers.