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Why Australia needs a junk food ad ban

Ex-Greens MLA in the ACT, Amanda Bresnan outlines why Australia is overdue for a junk food ad ban and what it will take to achieve this….

Banning junk food advertising on television to children is a much discussed and debated topic.

It was even the subject of a Hollowmen episode, where an incoming government signals that they want to take tough action on junk food, including banning advertising, much to the excitement of health and children’s advocacy groups. But true to reality, the government weakens in response to industry lobbying.

As this Hollowmen episode so poignantly exposes, the issue about banning junk food advertising comes up year after year, government after government, report after report, and yet nothing ever happens.

It gets discussed, we are told we need to wait for a ‘national process’ and then it is sent to the black hole that is COAG or AHMC, with what everyone knows is little to know chance that there will be agreement from States and Territories and the Federal Government.

The AMA; the Heart Foundation; the Obesity Coalition – comprising the Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Australia Victoria, VicHealth and the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, Deakin University; and the Parents’ Jury are just some of the groups amongst others that have consistently called for the banning of junk food advertising during prime time viewing hours.

The Parents’ Jury recently announced the results of their 2012 Fame and Shame Awards for food marketing that targets children. The Shame Award for Pester Power is awarded to the campaign that uses techniques which appeal to children, leading to them nagging their parents for unhealthy foods. For the third year running this was won by Kellogs for LCM bars.

For the first time this year, there was the Digital Ninja Award for use of digital media to target children, a growing avenue for marketing campaigns to target the tech savvy generation of children. As a member of the Parents’ Jury said – It’s tough for parents to say no all the time. I believe in treats in moderation, but we’re still the ones who have to battle daily with our kids. Kids everywhere do believe the hype. They want to be popular and this kind of advertising shamelessly plays on that vulnerability.

When it comes to ignoring reports, look no further than the Preventative Health Task Force – the much talked about avenue for reform and change from the Labor Rudd Government – which again, despite recommending action on marketing, advertising, promotion and sponsorship of ‘energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages’, nothing has happened.

The Chair of the Task Force Professor Rob Moodie has expressed his frustration stating that measures such as those outlined in the Preventative Health Task Force have not been implemented or seriously considered and that government has favoured measures around policy, funding for community interventions and social marketing campaigns, which are all softer options.

It is widely recognised that unhealthy food and eating habits is the next major battleground when it comes to health.

Health researchers at Deakin University found that banning junk food advertising aimed at children would be one of the most cost effective ways to tackle obesity and could save $300 million in health-care costs. The research also looked at the first phase of bans in the UK and found the exposure to children of junk food advertising reduced by about a third and that broadcasting revenue had increased over the same period.

Evidence has shown that self-regulation in Australia by food and advertising industries has been inadequate in protecting children from the harmful effects of junk food advertising. A recent study looking at the quick service restaurant industry (QSIR) self-regulatory initiative on fast-food advertising to children on commercial television, found that from 2009 to 2010 there was an increase in the average frequency of fast-food advertising, and that the frequency of advertising during times when the largest number of children would be watching television remained the same.

The ACT Greens announced during the 2012 ACT election that we would ban junk food advertising during prime time viewing hours, and in cinemas and on bus shelters. There is debate about whether states and territories can legislate particularly in the area of television advertising, however, legal advice from the Obesity Coalition indicates jurisdictions, including the ACT, can act.

The 2012 Parliamentary Agreement between the Labor Party and the ACT Greens includes the item ‘Work with other jurisdictions to implement a ban on junk food advertising to children during children’s television viewing hours’.

It was very disappointing to hear the ACT Chief Minister and Health Minister recently announce that the ACT Government would not adopt a ban on junk food advertising and was hopeful that the federal government would agree to introduce national restrictions on junk food advertising.

The Chief Minister and Health Minister also said that it made more sense to work with other jurisdictions to develop a national approach on health policy matters. Unfortunately this ‘work’ as stated in the Agreement has already been done and it resulted in no action, and a national approach on such matters has never eventuated. A vital effort to improve children’s health is destined for the ever-increasing black hole of national talks.

These sorts of vital preventative health initiatives are being undermined by industry and vested interests. More recently we’ve seen traffic light labelling go the way of junk food advertising. Once again, in an effort to get the states and territories to work together, this plan went nowhere and saw no action on tackling issues around diet and food.

States and territories have acted on their own when it comes to such issues, with NSW and the ACT legislating to display the kilojoule content of foods sold at major chain fast food outlets. SA looks set to introduce similar measures through regulations. This did not see the downfall of the industry, and many see this as the way forward on such issues, as if one state or territory acts, others will follow.

You have to question why after numerous reports calling for a ban on junk food advertising, medical research highlighting the effectiveness of pursuing this as a measure and the savings it would have for the ever-increasing health budget, the number of health groups calling for the ban, and the fact that it has worked overseas, that there has been no action.

More troubling is that the voice of groups representing the fast food industry is the one being listened to, not the overwhelming voices and evidence of health experts.

Everyone acknowledges that a junk food advertising ban is one of a number of measures that need to be taken to address childhood obesity. It is about exercise along with healthy eating. It is about measures that take more of ‘stick’ approach like an advertising ban, along with measures that take more of a ‘carrot’ approach like encouraging children to drink more water rather than sugary drinks. The trouble is, nobody seems willing to even take that first step and the more we ‘talk’ about it, the problem continues to grow as does the health budget.

What it takes is political will. For someone to differentiate themselves and stand up to the industry, and listen to the voices of health groups, like the AMA and the Heart Foundation; to parents; to the around 75% of Australians who agree with a junk food advertising ban, so that the next generation of children won’t be the first with a reduced life expectancy. That might sound dramatic, but that’s where we are heading if governments fail to listen and take action. 

Amanda Bresnan was a member of the ACT Legislative Assembly for the Greens and was the ACT Greens spokesperson for health. Amanda is currently working as a consultant.

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