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Australia has more junk food ads on television than any other country in the world. Meanwhile, a third of our kids are obese. Is there a connection? Experts are calling for a ban on TV food advertising when kids are watching.
Do junk food ads make kids fat? Should they be banned? Based on the evidence, a growing chorus of experts say yes.
The latest salvo comes from a group of New Zealand experts who say they've made a link between kids watching television and bad health.
Researchers from the University of Otago in Dunedin studied 1000 children from age three to 26. They found that those who watched television more than two hours a day had higher levels of obesity, blood cholesterol and smoking - as well as lower levels of physical fitness - when they reached adulthood than kids who watched less than two hours a day.
Why? Partly because, while they are watching TV, kids aren't getting out, exercising and playing with other kids, and burning off those kilojoules. But more insidiously, while watching TV, they're being bombarded with ads for drinks and foods of dubious nutritional value, full of sugar and fat.
The researchers published their findings in a recent edition of the prestigious UK medical journal the Lancet. An editorial in the same issue called for a worldwide ban on food advertising in children's viewing times.
Across the globe, about 155 million kids are obese, according to the International Obesity Task Force. At stake is not just the wellbeing of these kids as they reach adulthood, but hundreds of billions of dollars of health expenditure on adults with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and other disabilities they'll incur.
In Australia, two thirds of children are overweight and one third are obese. Twenty years ago, only about ten per cent were obese. And Australia has the greatest amount of junk food ads per hour of television than any other country in the world, including the US and the UK. About 30 per cent of all ads in kids' viewing time are for food or drinks. Most of this of this is for junk food: burgers, chips, soft drinks and sweets - high in fat, salt and/or sugar, says the Dietitians Association of Australia.
Here in Australia, experts are also calling for a ban on TV advertising of junk food to kids. Ms Kaye Mehta is a lecturer in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Flinders University in South Australia. She's also chair of the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children (CFAC), a lobby group that includes Nutrition Australia, the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Consumers' Association. The CFAC wants changes to the Broadcasting Services Act banning all food advertising on TV during periods when children aged under 12 years are watching. This includes early and afternoon slots, and evening TV between 5 pm and 9 pm, says Mehta.
This sort of talk is enough to cause TV and advertising executives to choke on their canapés.
The advertising industry - represented by groups such as the Australian Association of National Advertisers and the Advertising Federation of Australia - and the commercial television industry, represented by groups like Free TV Australia, are vehemently opposed to any suggestion of a ban. They argue:
But the CFAC disagrees with many of these arguments. 'The TV industry survived the ban on cigarette advertising, even though they made the same sorts of arguments about loss of profits. The voluntary code is toothless, it has no real effect on the content of food advertising. And the industry itself acknowledges that the strength of kids' advertising is its 'pester power', the ability for kids to influence their parents' buying patterns,' says Kaye Mehta.
And the evidence is considered strong enough by both the WHO and the International Obesity Task Force to link obesity with junk food advertising on kids' TV, she says.
Professor of Population Health at Deakin University, Boyd Swinburn, concedes that a ban in itself won't reduce obesity. There needs to be other measures such as more nutritional information available to parents, and more incentives to get gets kids exercising. But a ban should be a central part of these measures, he says. And there's enough evidence for other countries to consider a ban. Last week, the UK government announced it will shortly introduce measures to restrict junk food advertising on kids' TV - though these measures depend on the co-operation of the food industry. But there's little prospect of a ban here in Australia any time soon. The federal government prior to the last election explicitly ruled out banning junk food ads, arguing that parents - not governments - should decide what children eat, and that a ban would be impractical and unworkable. Food companies should be allowed to advertise their products in a free market, without regulation, it said.
But the government also acknowledged the seriousness of the childhood obesity epidemic. It announced a four-year, $116 million package aimed at encouraging children to exercise more and improve their eating habits, an after-school physical activity program for about 150,000 primary school children, and $15 million for grants to community organisations to promote healthy eating.
These measures are welcome, but they're a drop in the ocean, and they won't be enough to influence obesity when junk food levels in the diet remain high, says Kaye Mehta. And they'll stay high as long as the continue to be aggressively promoted by advertising on TV, she says.
But there may be help from an unlikely source - the food industry itself. Thanks to a ground swell of consumer sentiment away from fast foods, food companies are turning away from high-fat, high-sugar products to more healthy alternatives. Over the last few years, the fastest-growing area of revenue growth for Coca Cola Amatil - distributors of Coke in Australia - has come from mineral water and fruit juice. A fortnight ago, it announced a takeover offer for SPC Ardmona, which makes canned fruit and vegetable products. The company told its shareholders it sees its future growth in healthier food lines.
It mirrors what's happening globally. In response to falling profits, McDonald's for example is heavily advertising its new range of fruit and salads, to counter negative perceptions of its products caused by obesity-related lawsuits and by the film 'Super size me'.
Still, junk food, and junk food ads on TV, aren't going to disappear altogether any time soon. So it's up to parents to excercise their discretion. The Coalition on Food Advertising to Children recommends parents: