// Should junk food ads be banned?

by Matt O'Neill

With kids’ obesity now a regular news item, the debate over banning junk food advertisements aimed at children is hotter than ever. Dietitian Matt O’Neill explains what’s happening to help your clients and their families, and provides some ideas for what you can do.

It’s been a decade since I was working at the Australian Consumers’ Association (ACA) and calling for a ban on food advertising during children’s television. In 1996, Consumers’ International released its Spoonful of Sugar report revealing that Australia topped the 13-country study for volume of food advertisements during children’s television.

Australia averaged twelve ads per hour with a total of 231 ads for the twenty hours studied. At the time, health ministers said we needed more proof that food advertising affected children’s food choices and could be implicated in contributing to obesity.

Since 1996 childhood obesity rates have escalated but the Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbot, is still resisting tough action on advertising food to children. Following the health ministers’ April meeting, the Sydney Morning Herald (8 April) reported Mr Abbott’s statement, ‘we agree to disagree on TV advertising because there is not enough evidence and more research is needed to determine its effectiveness.’

Evidence for a ban

The Consumers’ Association, however, is still convinced that there is enough evidence. In a media release on 11 November 2005, Senior Food Policy Officer Clare Hughes said; ‘Industry groups opposing an ad ban claim that there is no evidence that food ads contribute to obesity or that a ban would help to reduce obesity. Yet countries that already have ad bans in place do have lower levels of obesity, and surely manufacturers wouldn’t spend so much money on advertising if it wasn’t going to influence what we buy.’

The food advertising-obesity link is inherently obvious, but incredibly difficult to prove. Even so, researchers from NSW Health last year found that the average Australian child is exposed to eleven advertisements each day, or 77 per week, for foods high in fat and/or sugar.

The study authors concluded; ‘Foods most advertised during children’s viewing hours are not those foods that contribute to a healthy diet for children. Confectionery and fast food restaurant advertising appears to target children. Australian children need protection from the targeted promotion of unhealthy foods on television, but currently little exists.’

What needs to happen?

On 20 August 2006, Professors Paul Zimmet and Phillip James weighed into the debate with an article in the Medical Journal of Australia entitled ‘The unstoppable Australian obesity and diabetes juggernaut. What should politicians do?’

‘This epidemic is guaranteed to continue, unless we accept that the decades-long reliance on health promotion and intense media coverage of obesity have had virtually no effect… Our politicians need to accept that major legislative and other regulatory measures are required.’

These measures were spelled out and comprised:

• Banning all marketing of food to children, including television advertisements.
• Establishing strict food and physical activity requirements for schools.
• Removing junk foods and drinks from all publicly funded premises.
• Requiring ‘traffic light’ food labelling (based on nutritional profiling) on all foods, drinks and meals, wherever sold.

These options are now causing heated discussions between politicians, nutritionists, the food industry and concerned parents.

What is the food industry doing?

Naturally the food industry as a whole doesn’t want any bans on what it sells or advertises and is arguing against any restrictions. In November of this year the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), the food industry’s peak organisation, announced that it would launch a new voluntary food labelling scheme.

The extra labelling will show, on the front of packaging, how many kilojoules in a serve and also the per cent of daily value, which is the percentage contribution to the recommended total daily energy intake for an adult.

Whilst sharing this information may be useful for savvy label readers, it falls short of a simplified traffic light or logo-based labelling scheme that may have a better chance of triggering positive changes in food choice, especially in less educated consumers.

What can you, the fitness professional, do?

Whether you’ve got kids or not, an environment that constantly bombards you with advertisements for junk food makes the challenge of eating well a little, or a lot, harder.

Here are a few suggestions for how you can help your clients:

• Decide on where you stand in the junk food ad-ban debate and logically share your views. If you have strong views, let our politicians know.
• Emphasise positive role modelling to parents. Encourage them to eat healthy food and get into shape.
• Keep an eye on media stories, as they can be useful triggers for discussions with clients who have seen the same report.
• Take the time to learn about new food labelling, whether this is in the format of kilojoules per serve, per cent of daily value or understanding what various logos mean.
• Help educate your clients on how to read current and new food labels.


Matt O'Neill
Matt, a leading Australian dietitian who specialises in weight management, was named Australian Fitness Network’s Author of the Year
in 2005. You can subscribe to Matt’s e-mail newsletter and download useful tools at www.SmartShape.com.au