The evidence backs action on junk food advertising to kids – but it’s not all that’s needed
Health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett’s recent post critiquing calls for a ban on junk food advertising to children has drawn a strong response from Jane Martin, Senior Policy Advisor at the Obesity Policy Coalition.
Jane Martin writes:
After accusing the Obesity Policy Coalition and other health groups of ‘over-simplifying the issues around junk food advertising to kids’, health policy consultant Jennifer Doggett misrepresents the outcomes of reviews of the evidence and makes a series of unsupported and rather bizarre statements about the ‘potential side effects’ of junk food advertising restrictions.
Doggett states that “three comprehensive reviews of the impact of junk food advertising on children (World Health Organisation 2009, Ofcom 2006 and the US Institute of Medicine 2006) … have failed to find evidence that an advertising ban has any positive impact on children’s overall health and well-being.”
Since these reviews didn’t examine the impact of ad bans on children’s health and well-being, they could hardly be expected to find such evidence.
In fact the reviews looked at the influence of advertising on children’s food consumption, preferences, behaviour and diet-related health outcomes, and key conclusions were as follows.
“Nearly all research published in the past few years supports the hypothesis that food promotion, especially television advertising, contributes to the unhealthy food preferences, poor diet and consequently, growing obesity among children in Western societies.
Systematic and substantial reviews of the best quality empirical investigations concur that these effects exist and that, since the vast majority of advertising is for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, the result is harmful to children’s health.”
What’s more, while Doggett correctly cites Ofcom’s findings that some estimates suggest exposure to junk food marketing accounts for some 2% of the variation in food choice/obesity, she fails to provide is the following qualification of the impact this actually has on childhood obesity:
“Cumulatively, this may make an appreciable difference to the number of children who fall into the ‘obese category’. Further, this effect may be larger than the measurable effects of exercise and some other factors.
Following this review, Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, introduced restrictions on advertising of high fat, sugar and salt foods during TV programs appealing to under 16 year-olds.
“Along with many other intersecting factors, food and beverage marketing influences the diets and health prospects of children and youth.”
This conclusion led the US Institute of Medicine to recommend that, in the absence of successful voluntary efforts, congress enact legislation to shift advertising during children’s TV programming from high calorie and low-nutrient foods to healthful foods.
“Research that has examined associations between food promotion and food behaviours, determinants of behaviour and diet-related health outcomes, finds modest but consistent evidence that the link is causal.”
On the basis of this evidence, the World Health Organization has just called on member states to take steps to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising.
Does Doggett suggest that these organisations have misrepresented the evidence too?
And what evidence can Doggett produce to support her dubious assertion that junk food advertising restrictions would result in children watching more TV?
The OPC does not suggest that junk food advertising to children is a single cause of childhood obesity Australia, just as it does not suggest restrictions are the sole solution. It is widely recognised that Australia needs a multi-faceted approach of which junk food marketing restrictions is, according to numerous reviews, an essential component.
Until then, attempts by industry and others to discredit the evidence supporting regulation of junk food marketing is just one of the many challenges facing those who are genuinely committed to ensuring the future health of Australian children.