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Government, parents or advertisers: who should decide what kids watch and eat?

The multi-country study concluded that in Australia, television advertising’s contribution to childhood obesity is between 10% and 28%. Maggie Osterberg

A recent complaint to the Advertising Standards Board by the Obesity Policy Coalition about a Smarties online colouring-in competition aimed at three- to ten-year-olds, and a bill introduced by Greens leader Bob Brown to ban junk food advertising to children, has fuelled debate about the ethics of advertising energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods and beverages to kids.

Bob Brown says he feels the food and beverage industry’s “self regulation has clearly failed”, so action must be taken by the government to shield children from junk food advertising.

The Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising Bill 2011 would ban junk food advertisements at specified times, as well as ban companies from using the internet to promote junk food to children.

This raises the question of whether television advertising, or rather advertising in general to an audience of children, is responsible in some way for the rates of overweight and obesity we are currently seeing.

The numbers

There’s no denying that childhood overweight and obesity is a serious issue in Australia.

Jen W

The most recent Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, showed that, across all age groups, 17% of children were classified as overweight and 6% were obese. That’s almost a quarter of all Australia children being classed as overweight or obese.

Meanwhile, a multi-country comparison of the estimated effect of television advertising on childhood overweight and obesity showed Australian kids are likely exposed to 4.9 minutes of food advertising on television every day.

The study concluded that in Australia, television advertising’s contribution to the prevalence of childhood obesity is estimated at 10% to 28%.

WHO knows

In response to the recent actions by Bob Brown and the Obesity Policy Coalition, The Punch and Mumbrella websites have posted articles with unfavourable views of the proposed restrictions. The authors of both articles advocate responsible parenting over advertising restrictions as the cure for the problem.

The vulnerability of children lies at the centre of this debate: television junk food advertisements and competitions presenting energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods in an overly favourable light, and often on a regular basis, are surely difficult for parents to compete with.

And placing the onus on parents to have sole responsibility for counteracting these potent junk food advertisements is unlikely to be the best strategy for change.

Carol Moshier

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says reducing marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in salt, fat and sugar to children is a cost-effective way to reduce non-communicable disease. It recognises such measures as a “best buy” for healthy diet promotion.

The WHO analysed available evidence and found strong links between television advertising and children’s food knowledge, preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns.

Bigger effort

Interestingly, 20 countries have developed or are developing policies relating to marketing to children.

In the United Kingdom, new restrictions on advertising food and drink to children were announced in February 2007. One of these restrictions stated that there should be no advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar in children’s programmes.

The UK’s evaluation of these restrictions on children’s exposure to advertising found children aged four to 15 years saw 32% less overall food and drink advertising following the institution of advertising restrictions.

This suggests that while parental responsibility is paramount, government intervention is needed to reduce the incidence of overweight and obesity in children.


The position of WHO is echoed in a 2007 submission by the Dietitian’s Association of Australia to the Australian Communications and Media Authority review of Children’s Television Standards. The Dietitian’s Association of Australia believe “changes to food and beverage television advertising regulation is part of the solution to the obesity crisis in children, as it will make it easier for parents to support their children to make healthier food choices”.

We need to acknowledge that junk food advertising in isolation is not solely responsible for the rates of childhood obesity we see in today’s society. But to combat this growing problem, we need a coordinated approach that includes healthy eating and physical activity and sensible, supportive regulation.

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