Childhood obesity needs action

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

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.


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