There’s no evidence that industry self-regulation works to restrict junk food advertising to children. That’s the unsurprising finding of the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) long-awaited report, released last week.
The report concludes that the industry has failed to address community concerns about the protection and promotion of children’s health. Then, in an astounding handball, it suggests the Australian National Preventative Health Agency (ANPHA) take responsibility for the issue.
ACMA is the Australian government agency responsible for the regulation of broadcasting, the internet, radio and telecommunications. Among its responsibilities is the role of “monitoring the effect of regulations and ensuring they are responsive to the community’s needs”. So there’s no doubt this handball is an abdication of ACMA’s statutory role.
But what does it mean for the protection of children against the harmful effects of junk food advertising?
ACMA or ANPHA?
Most of the solutions to better health lie outside the health sector. If a police report finds its breath-testing program is inadequate, or a department of education report concludes its physical education programs needed attention, it’s pretty clear who needs to take responsibility for these reforms. These issues have public health implications but that doesn’t mean public health agencies should be in charge.
To improve public health and protect children we need a whole-of-government approach – and this is acknowledged in the ACMA report. But it means non-health agencies such as ACMA have to do their job and do it well.
The ACMA report claims that “as a broadcast regulator, the ACMA is neither equipped nor resourced to make independent judgments on issues of public and preventative health.”
But this argument doesn’t hold. Ensuring that full public health expertise is available to ACMA should not be a difficult task. Many independent judgements have already been made on these issues, including by the Preventative Health Taskforce which the ACMA report quotes extensively.
Strong evidence, poor recommendations
The ACMA report correctly highlights the inadequacies of industry self regulation, including:
the highly bureaucratic and onerous nature of the complaint process,
numerous examples of the types of breaches recorded to date,
the lack of improvements in the exposure of children to junk food marketing, and
the ongoing high level of community concern on the issue.
Then the conclusions leap to feeble and industry-friendly statements that read like they’re written by the food industry itself. Given the absence of a national food criteria and limited research into the effectiveness of industry’s initiatives, the report says, “ACMA will not be moving to develop new television standards on food and beverage advertising to children”.
Who pulls the strings?
The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 gives ACMA the power to determine standards for children’s programs. But while it may have this power in theory, the real power rests with the food and commercial media industries and their success in lobbying against government, as the ACMA report highlights.
All government agencies are subject to the political red or green light on any major policy. And the reality is that for politicians to give the green light for regulation, which the industry perceives are against its vested interests, they must expend large amounts of political capital.
The private sector’s influence on public policy seems to have skyrocketed in recent years and with each wave of anti-regulation TV advertisements and lobbying, the next group of vested interests becomes even bolder. The amazingly successful push back by the miners against a rent tax has been picked up by many other industries – coal, alcohol, gambling, tobacco and processed food, to name just a few.
It seems the political effort needed to counter the tobacco industry has used up all of the government’s political capital, leaving other public health policies recommended by the Preventative Health Taskforce and the Blewett report on food labelling wallowing in the puddles of self regulation and further consultations.
Individually, the politicians I speak to see the need for further action to restrict junk food marketing to children. And health professionals and the public are hoarse with calling for this action.
For me, the wider question from this feeble ACMA report is how can we protect politicians from powerful vested interests so that they can give the green light to agencies such as ACMA to do their jobs properly.