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Advertising to children

Recently, one of the ‘Teal’ Independents, Dr Sophie Scamps, a general practitioner, presented a Healthy Kids Advertising Bill to the House of Representatives in the federal government. The Bill was seconded by Dr Monique Ryan, another Independent and a paediatrician. Strong support for the Bill also came from the Public Health Association of Australia, Dietitians Australia, the Australian Medical Association, Diabetes Australia, the Cancer Council, the Food for Health Alliance, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

The way children are targeted with ads for unhealthy products has been a long-standing interest of mine, and I was proud to represent the Public Health Association when the Bill was read, and to speak in its favour at a press conference that followed.

The aim is to stop the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks on commercial and community radio and TV between the hours of 6am and 9.30pm, and totally ban all paid marketing of unhealthy food online, including on social media.

The Healthy Kids Advertising Bill uses the Health Council of the Council of Australian Governments definition of unhealthy food and drinks. Details are available online and include sweet drinks, snack foods, confectionery and many fast foods – similar to the products listed as ‘discretionary’ in the last Dietary Guidelines for Australia.

As regular readers of this column would know, I don’t think most people have a problem including an occasional unhealthy food. However, Australian children’s diets are dominated by unhealthy food and drinks. When they replace many healthy foods and contribute over 40% of the average child’s kilojoules, it’s hard to deny they have become a problem. Studies in each state also show that almost 60% of the average Australian food budget goes on these products and alcohol.

Junk foods and drinks have always been popular with most children, but the quantity was kept in check when most were mainly consumed at a party or on special occasions. Daily consumption is now common. That’s largely due to their wide availability and the fact they’re advertised so much. There are no ads for carrots or celery or most fruits.

Screen time has made the problem worse. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that outside of school hours almost a quarter of children have more than 20 hours of screen time a week. Sitting is a problem in itself, but so is what they see. And they see lots of ads.

The push from advertising has increased dramatically with children now specifically bombarded with ads for junk products to an extent that didn’t occur when they only watched a single TV within the home. Ads for unhealthy food and drinks are on the Internet, in online games, YouTube, text messages and social media, plus those on packaging, billboards, magazines and in movies.

Companies in Australia spend $550 million a year on advertising food and drinks. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t sell more products. And the most profitable products are those that are highly processed and tempting the tastebuds with their added sugar, unhealthy fats and salt. They’re also designed to be easy to eat, and not filling – so we can eat more.

Why we need action

Research shows that pre-school children see advertising as entertainment. Up to 8 years of age, most children don’t understand the persuasive intent of advertising. By age 12, they usually know that advertisements are designed to make you want to buy something. However, psychologists point out that cognitive ability at this age makes children especially vulnerable to the impact of advertising with major effects on their behaviour and choices.

Teenagers can understand that advertisers want them to buy particular products, but they may not understand that celebrities and influencers on social media are paid to promote products. Like many adults, they may not realise that if you click on an ad on social media, or show interest in anything on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or Snapchat, that interest goes straight to the makers of the product and is used to directly target the ads which pop up on anything you view.

Teenagers’ brains are also wired to seek reward, and they respond to marketing cues and then spread their eating and drinking habits to their peers. They are immensely susceptible to what is ‘cool’, and that includes what they eat and drink.

No one thinks that banning advertising of unhealthy foods to children will single-handedly stop kids eating so much junk. But public health experts in many countries are convinced it’s a low cost option that must be part of the mix of interventions to halt the problem of poor diets and childhood obesity.

With regulation the only way to stop companies targeting children, we need to convince Government to set rules and enforce them. Hence this Bill.

We don’t doubt rules will meet strong resistance from those who want to sell children profitable products. About 15 years ago, some of us managed to get the topic of junk food ads in front of the government of the day. Food companies were consulted and agreed to stop enticing children to eat unhealthy products. Their method involved ‘self-regulation’ rather than legislation. As so often occurs, self-regulation failed. The companies themselves decided what was ‘unhealthy’ – with ideas that differed from those of public health nutritionists. The advertising standards panel decided whether an ad was directed at children. Any complaints relied on consumer groups like Choice and keen public health workers gathering the evidence in their own time. Most have been rejected and claimed to be for a general audience, with parents given the role of controlling everything their children might see.

Parents undoubtedly have a role but, especially with widespread use of social media and busy parents, it’s pretty difficult for them to do it on their own. Advertising – for toys, food, movies to see, places to go – is designed to encourage children to use pester power over their parents. Advertisers see children as ‘fair game’. They’re not.

Take home message

  • Many Australian children have poor diets with unhealthy foods and drinks replacing foods needed for good health, especially vegetables and fruit.
  • 25% of children in Australia live with excess body fat that will increase their risk of health problems in later life. Poor diets dominated by junk foods are a major factor.
  • Some growing children are active enough to burn off the excess kilojoules, but these foods and drinks also damage their teeth.
  • Increased screen time and social media have increased the ability of advertisers of unhealthy food and drinks to target our children.
  • Government needs to set clear regulations about advertising unhealthy foods and drinks to children, with substantial fines for those who ignore the regulations.
  • We should send a message to our local member Fiona Phillips that we want action that recognises the adverse effects of unhealthy foods on our children’s health.

Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM

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