Side-stepping the censors: the failure of self-regulation for junk food advertising

Statutory guidelines only limit junk food advertising to children for about an hour a day. a fc o/Flickr

Industry self-regulation has failed to change the amount of fast food advertising targeting Australian children, according to new research from the Prevention Research Collaboration and NSW Cancer Council.

Researchers looked at fast food advertising during children’s peak television viewing times and assessed whether companies were signed to the Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative (QSRII) for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children introduced in 2009.

This initiative, which had seven signatory companies at the time of the study, specifies that only food and beverages that represent healthier choices are to be promoted to children.

Researchers also compared the energy content of the advertised food to the daily energy needs of girls and boys aged four, eight and 12 years.

Current regulations

In Australia, food and drink advertising aimed at children is regulated through statutory guidelines and industry self-regulation.

The Children’s Television Standards are statutory guidelines which cover the use of promotions, popular characters, unsuitable material and clarity of messaging.

These do not regulate the types of foods that may be advertised to children, except alcohol, and only apply to a limited broadcast period (around one hour a day).

Unfortunately, this is usually not during children’s most popular programs or viewing times.

In terms of industry self-regulation, QSRII is one of two current programs. The other is the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s (AGFC) Responsible Marketing to Children Initiative.

These name specific types of foods and marketing techniques they consider appropriate for advertising to children and for defining child audiences.

However, these specifications are poorly defined, highly permissive and voluntary for food manufacturers and services.

For example, company-developed nutrient criteria were found to consistently stipulate higher thresholds for negative nutrients compared with existing professional criteria.

Another example involves rules for television advertising AFGC’s Responsible Marketing to Children Initiative. The threshold for applying advertising restrictions is rarely, if ever, reached since many of them stipulate that they only apply when children comprise half of the viewing audience.

There has also been low participation in Australian industry self-regulatory initiatives by food companies.

The failure of self-regulation

The study authors found there were as many advertisements for unhealthy fast foods in 2010 as there were before the initiative was introduced.

One reason for this is that the Quick Service Restaurants’ self-regulation only applies to a very narrow range of advertised foods.

For example, the regulations don’t cover packages sold by fast food outlets as “family meals”, despite the fact that they are designed to be consumed by children and parents.

The analysis showed a child’s share of all but one of these family meal packages contained energy far in excess of children’s requirements.

The results indicate that in its current form, industry self-regulation is not reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy fast food advertising.

This is consistent with results of previous research, which showed the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s (AFGC) Responsible Marketing to Children Initiative had not reduced children’s exposure to advertising for a range of unhealthy foods on Sydney television.

That research found children still watched the same amount of television advertising for unhealthy foods as they did before self-regulation was introduced.

Findings from both studies suggest a clear need for governments to set standards for limiting food advertising to children.

Why reduce children’s exposure to junk food marketing

There is consistent scientific evidence showing food marketing influences what foods children want, ask their parents for, and ultimately eat and drink.

The vast majority of food marketing targeted to children is for unhealthy foods and food marketing to children is extensive, across the internet, magazines, outdoor locations, and in stores.

Despite marketing being widespread across different media, television remains a major source of children’s exposure to advertising.

Australian and international studies indicate that a meaningful reduction in advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages is likely to be a cost-effective (and probably cost-saving) strategy for obesity and chronic disease prevention.

Necessities, not luxuries

The National Preventative Health Taskforce set up by the Australian Government has recommended children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising should be reduced.

The government response was that it would monitor the impact of self-regulation before taking any further action.

To be convincing, industry self-regulation needs to redress the numerous limitations in its current commitments, and comprehensively and genuinely implement reductions in food and beverage marketing to children across all media, at all times and for a broad set of energy-dense, nutrient-poor food products.

It is particularly important for any policy limiting unhealthy food advertising to use a standardised, independent nutrient profiling tool based on per 100g/100mL to determine the appropriateness of foods and beverages for marketing to children.

The World Health Organization has recently called for global action to reduce the impact of marketing foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugars and salt on children and recommends governments introduce policies to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of these products.

The limitations and failure of Australian industry self-regulation to date indicates it’s time for government to take action and set regulatory standards.

This piece is based on an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia today.