Junk food in schools sends bad message - researcher

The Government's recent decision to allow the sale of fat-laden pies and sausage rolls, and sugar-filled drinks in schools is sending the wrong message to children and parents, says health researcher Caroline Shaw.

She has joined criticism of Education Minister Anne Tolley's decision to remove the National Administration Guideline (5) which tells schools that "where food and beverages are sold on school premises, to make only healthy options available".

Mrs Tolley said this meant schools would no longer be required to act as "food police".

Dr Shaw, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington, said New Zealand was lagging well behind other developed countries in the promotion of healthy eating to children through the media and advertising.

A study by her department showed that at a time when more than 200,000 children in New Zealand, or 30 percent, were either obese or overweight, and there were rapidly increasing rates of diabetes, the lack of direction regarding unhealthy food advertising was alarming.

"There are 1.1 million children and young people in New Zealand potentially exposed to this advertising on a daily basis," she said.

The review by Dr Shaw showed there was still little or no control over the advertising of unhealthy food to young children, despite the ongoing debate about obesity.

This was in contrast to other OECD countries where food advertising aimed at children was more strictly regulated for health reasons.

International long-term studies had shown that 40-80 percent of children who were obese in adolescence would remain so in adulthood, she said.

"The UK has much tougher regulations than New Zealand, and is looking at strengthening these further," Dr Shaw said.

"Sweden and Norway and the Canadian province of Quebec have banned the advertising of unhealthy food to children altogether.

"Recent research overseas clearly shows evidence of the adverse impact of marketing unhealthy food on children's dietary beliefs, dietary choices and their health." In contrast, New Zealand was one of the few developed countries entirely self-regulatory in the area.

"What we have here is a relatively toothless system of self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Authority, a voluntary advertising industry body.

"This is fundamentally useless in terms of protecting the health of children. It's not aimed at benefiting public health; it's simply designed to control those few advertisers who may breach acceptable standards." Dr Shaw said 70 percent of food advertising on TV, in the time children watched, was counter to healthy nutrition.

Research showed children could easily see 7134 food advertisements in one year if they watched TV two hours a day.

The review detailed moves by the previous Government to institute a food rating system for advertising in children's viewing hours, but many children watched TV outside those times.

Targets for reducing advertising of unhealthy foods had also been proposed, but so far nothing had happened.

She said there were straight-forward solutions to the continuing marketing of unhealthy food to children, and the growing obesity and related health problems facing the community:

* A clear government vision which was independent from the advertising and food industry;
* More regulation or co-regulation to implement this vision regarding unhealthy food advertising aimed at children;
* Independent monitoring of all forms of food marketing to measure success of policy interventions;
* Initiating controls over cross border marketing through international treaties.


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