Marketing obesity

Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. In 2010, world-wide there were an estimated 42 million children under five years old who were overweight, and this figure is increasing at an alarming rate.

Children who are overweight or obese are likely to grow into obese adults who risk developing a number of chronic non‐communicable ailments, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. As these diseases add billions in health costs to national economies, it is clearly desirable both for individuals and for society overall, to devise and introduce policies which prohibit or limit their proliferation.

One policy intervention which can help to achieve populations with well adjusted weight levels involves introducing and maintaining strategies that encourage healthy eating habits. But the extensive array of convenience and pre‐packaged foods high in fat, sugar and salt (so called junk foods) which are increasingly available across the world has made eating healthily a challenge.

Many have argued that this challenge has been compounded by a bombardment of marketing and advertising that surreptitiously and adversely influences people’s food preferences and consumption patterns. There has been considerable advocacy therefore, as a result of this thinking, which has exhorted governments to place limitations on the marketing of junk foods, particularly to children.

The issue is complicated, however, by opposing arguments which maintain that junk food can be part of a balanced diet and that the food, non‐alcoholic drink and advertising industries can be entrusted to market these types of products responsibly without the intervention of government, or at least with minimal government intervention.

Various countries have attempted to grapple with this issue and some have taken actions to control or prohibit marketing which may influence children’s eating habits. In Australia, however, marketing of junk food has been controlled by a largely self-regulatory regime. In conjunction with this regime there has been substantial investment by the federal government in programs to improve children’s activity levels, and the current government has promised that preventative health issues, such as junk food consumption, are high on its agenda.

Despite past actions and current government commitments, there have been persistent calls for more to be done. The Howard Government took the position that while its role was to encourage behavioural change, it was not to impose excessive regulation; it was not a ‘nanny state’ government. The current government’s rhetoric of a reform agenda, which prioritises prevention and appears more amenable to the idea of requiring certain behaviours to decrease public health threats, combined with a general trend in society towards preventive health, could indicate that a more regulatory regime for junk food advertising may emerge in the future in Australia.

But this is not a categorical certainty. Junk food producers continue to argue convincingly that they responsibly market their products, promote healthy menu alternatives and support nutrition labelling to assist people in making decisions about what and how much they eat. Advertisers maintain that they do not make fraudulent claims about products. They provide information and it is up to people to be discerning consumers.

Therefore, despite there being a current climate which supports the imposition of a more regulatory advertising regime for junk foods, it is likely that crucial decisions about its imposition will be about how effectively any government can, and is committed to balancing complex issues, such as protecting children from manipulation and exploitation with the rights of commercial interests to promote their goods and the divergent ideological stances.

Marketing obesity? Junk food, advertising and kids explores these, and related issues in more depth.



Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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