Opinion piece to The Age: World Consumer Rights Day

Saturday 15 March, 2008
World Consumer Rights Day should give us cause to consider the extent to which society upholds the rights of children - one of the most vulnerable groups of consumers.

With rates of childhood obesity in Australia escalating - one in four children is now above a healthy weight - this year's World Consumer Rights Day, aptly themed Junk Food Generation, was used as a platform to launch a global campaign to end junk food and beverage marketing to children and uphold their rights as consumers.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory, recognises children's right to the highest standard of health, and to protection from material that may harm their wellbeing.

However, in Australia, and internationally, these rights are being undermined, as children are increasingly the targets of sophisticated marketing campaigns designed to stimulate their desire for processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

Australia has one of the highest rates of food advertising to children in the world, and the preponderance of this advertising is for unhealthy food.

This advertising encourages children to develop eating habits that are detrimental to their health and wellbeing-research has shown food advertising affects the types of foods children prefer, pester parents to buy, and ultimately consume. Food advertising to children is subject to minimal regulation, despite the fact that children lack the cognitive capacity to understand the commercial intent of advertising or to resist its influence. Nor are children able to understand and weigh up the short- and long-term consequences of their actions.

Yes, parents must do their best to instill healthy eating habits in their children - but parents' efforts are directly counteracted by the food industry's million-dollar investments in marketing to children.

Food advertising to children is no longer confined to the television-it is ubiquitous and impossible to avoid. Food marketers reach children at school - through Shrek-themed M'n'M fundraising and Nestle-sponsored school competitions. They also target kids when they play or watch sport - by sponsoring sports teams, awarding fast food vouchers to best players and employing kids' sporting heroes to endorse junk food. Children watching cricket over the summer were regaled by thirty different ads featuring members of the Australian cricket team promoting KFC as their food of choice and the Official Restaurant of Cricket Australia.

The pages of children's magazines such as K-Zone, Just Kidding and Total Girl, are filled with advertising for ice-cream, fast food, and sugary snacks and drinks, and child-height supermarket shelves are packed with animal-shaped foods and cartoon-covered packages. Junk foods are promoted in conjunction with the latest kids' films, and children are lured to fast food restaurants with promises of toys, excitement and fun.

Food advertisers are capitalising on kids' increasing technological savvy. They are using ‘new media', such as interactive web-games, to engage directly with children, often without parents' knowledge or supervision, and designing ad campaigns that integrate different media platforms. An Uncle Tobys ad campaign for its high-sugar ‘Roll-Ups' snacks used TV and children's magazines to promote its branded ‘Frubalia' website, a bright and colourful online playland, where children can create their own ‘Fruba' identities, play games, enter competitions and explore the land of Frubalia. So far nearly 30,000 children have signed up.

It is little wonder that a quarter of this ‘junk food generation' of children is overweight or obese, and may face shorter life expectancies than their parents. To coincide with World Consumer Rights Day, two international organisations - Consumers International and the International Obesity Taskforce - have released an international code to govern the way food and beverages are marketed to children. The World Health Assembly will consider adoption of this code in May. If adopted, the code would provide a framework for legislation to substantially restrict all forms of promotion of unhealthy food to children and adolescents.

This type of legislation is necessary to protect the rights of children, and would be an important step in addressing the childhood obesity problem.

No one is suggesting that food advertising is the sole cause of obesity, or that regulation of food advertising alone is the solution. It is well understood that combating childhood obesity requires a long term, multi-strategic approach. However, advertising of unhealthy food to children undermines initiatives by government and health agencies, and the efforts of parents, to encourage children to eat healthily. Effective regulation of this advertising is therefore widely regarded as an essential component of any obesity prevention strategy, and is needed to preserve our children's right to healthy and happy lives.

Jane Martin
Senior Policy Advisor
Obesity Policy Coalition