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Two reports last week drew attention again to the lack of effective action to reduce exposure of our children to junk food marketing.
One was a Consumer survey of around 1000 New Zealanders asking participants about unhealthy food marketing targeting children.
Seventy-eight percent agreed our tamariki are exposed to too many ads for unhealthy food and drinks and about three-quarters also agreed these ads were contributing to childhood obesity.
Less than a third of participants thought food advertisements improved children’s nutrition knowledge.
While television advertising was the area of greatest concern, there were also worries about online marketing, sponsorship, and product packaging.
Participants were overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on television advertisements for unhealthy food and drinks at times when children would be watching. There was less support for bans on sponsorship of sport and events by junk food producers.
The other report, from the University of Otago, involved research from the Kids’ Cam project where 168 children in the Wellington area wore automated cameras over four days. The latest research findings from this show that on average the 12-year-olds snacked on unhealthy food and drinks five times a day. Earlier findings from this project showed the children were exposed to 27 junk food ads a day.
If these reports make readers’ eyes glaze over because their themes have a depressing familiarity, spare a thought for public health advocates who have become increasingly alarmed about our laissez faire attitude to this.
Our children already have the dubious claim of being the second-fattest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. What is the hold-up? Are we waiting until we reach first place?
We know how forceful the food and beverage manufacturing lobby is and how it will put pressure on politicians should they want to go further than the existing voluntary codes which have proved totally ineffective.
The Advertising Standards Authority, an industry funded body, introduced the Children and Young People’s Advertising Code, restricting marketing of unhealthy food and drinks in 2017 but its effectiveness is questionable. Over two years only one of 16 complaints was upheld.
Those who might still be drawn to the freedom of choice argument miss the point that children, as explained in a Heart Foundation background paper on advertising food to children, are not rational consumers who can be expected to critically assess information and weigh up the future consequences of their decisions.
If marketers can get children to bond with their product from an early age, then they are likely to be customers in the future and they can also influence their parents through ‘‘ pester power’’ - something any harassed parent who has given in to their child’s demands at the supermarket will recognise.
Advertising not only influences children’s preferences and choices but may also affect the amount of food eaten.
When the food and beverage lobby inevitably tries to paint itself as responsible and concerned about this issue, it is perhaps worth noting that it has been estimated for every dollar (US) the World Health Organisation spends on non-communicable disease prevention, the food industry spends about $500 ($NZ692) promoting processed food.
Restricting junk food marketing to children would not make unhealthy eating or obesity disappear overnight, but that, and such measures as a tax on sugary drinks (previously ruled out by Labour), could make a difference as part of a multi-faceted obesity prevention programme.
Whether this Government has the gumption to act boldly and comprehensively on any of this remains to be seen, but the more time spent dithering, the fatter many of our children will become with long-term ramifications for their health and the health system.