Marketing junk food to children is unethical. Why have we had 15 years of inaction?

19 October 2012

For 15 years parents and health experts have been calling for regulations to restrict junk food marketing to children. Year on year, the evidence and support has been building to back up this call. Year on year, the junk food industry – facilitated by advertisers - has become ever more sophisticated and pervasive in its marketing to children. And year on year, politicians have remained frozen by the intimidating lobbying force of the processed food and advertising industries. This is a graphic case of how our democracy is being progressively undermined by the powers of a few vested interests, at the expense of our children’s health. New Zealand, like most countries in the world, is in the grip of a childhood obesity epidemic which has been increasing over decades. One in four Kiwi children are overweight or obese, for Maori children it is over one in three and for Pacific children it is just over half.  Obesity is yet another burden facing New Zealand’s most vulnerable children, compounding the existing inequalities they will face through life. This crisis could see the next generation of New Zealanders face shorter life expectancy than their parents as this tsunami of childhood obesity gets converted into diabetes, heart disease and cancers in adulthood. The Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society is meeting in Auckland over the weekend at its annual conference (18-20 October).  Its theme, ‘For our children’s children’, is rightly putting the spotlight onto society and our elected representatives. What are we all doing to provide the best environment for the future generation of New Zealand children? The answer is pretty clear: ‘not nearly enough’. But the challenge is to ensure parents are not being undermined with high pester-power marketing and then being blamed  as bad parents, and to avoid the parroting of industry cries of ‘nanny state’. Why is this a bad thing when it comes to caring for children?  Nannies have the trust of parents and are there to nurture children. They are a much better exemplar for the state to emulate than the current unethical and predatory paradigm that the junk food industry provides. Allowing companies to continue to target children, when so many are already at an unhealthy weight, fails the test of ethical behaviour. It also breaches the UN Rights of the Child which states children have the right to “develop physically and spiritually in a healthy and normal way, free and with dignity”. The unrelenting nature of advertising also undermines the efforts of parents, schools and others, which is why there is such high public support for government to step in and regulate. Leaving industry to self-regulate marketing to children has demonstrably failed. Marketing campaigns targeting children are becoming increasingly integrated across a range of platforms, including traditional media like TV, but also through apps, social media, internet, competitions, and children’s sporting events.  It is time for the Government to put children first and take the obvious step that parents are crying out for, which is to regulate unhealthy food marketing directed at children. It should be a no-brainer: regulations have been proven to be effective in reducing exposure in other countries, they’re inexpensive to implement, overwhelmingly supported by the public (and the majority of politicians in private), and they’re also a top priority for the World Health Organisation to prevent childhood obesity. Experience in the UK has also proven that restrictions on TV advertising have not had a detrimental impact on the quality of children’s TV programs or the revenue of TV networks. Fifteen years is a long time. How much longer do we allow the purveyors of junk food to run free with their unethical marketing practices and their license to dictate public policy to our politicians?

This article was published as an Opinion piece in the Dominion Post, Friday 19 October, 2012

Authors: Boyd Swinburn Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health The University of Auckland Ph 022 167 9636

Jane Martin Executive Manager Obesity Policy Coalition Melbourne, Australia Ph +61 418358768