Opinion piece for The Age

Wednesday 9 September, 2009


Children's rights lose out to profits in review of Children's Television Standards

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has nailed its colours to the mast: business as usual for the junk food advertisers is more important than seriously contributing to preventing childhood obesity. 

After two years of consulting and selectively listening to the evidence, ACMA finally released its review of the Children Televisions Standards yesterday.  It has chosen to ignore recommendations by leading health organisations and experts who have long been calling for much tighter restrictions on junk food advertising. Over 90% of the public also support such measures, according to a recent poll.

The recommendations include only trivial changes to regulations that have not been substantially reviewed for more than twenty years. The main problem with the Standards has not been addressed - namely that they only apply to advertising during low-rating, dedicated children's programming (which averages one hour per day, usually between 4pm-5pm), whereas we know that five times more children watch TV between 6pm and 9pm on weekdays and this is period in which the highest number of junk food ads are screened.

The cheers from the food, advertising and media industries and the jeers from the parent and professional groups in response to the review says it all. 

Let's reflect on why these Standards were legislated in the first place.  It was to ensure that children's interests were put before commercial imperatives.  Specifically, because "children's television programming is a matter of community concern that may potentially be overlooked by the commercial marketing industry as a result of their focus on sales and profits." 

In announcing the review over two years ago, ACMA stated it was revising the Children's Television Standards to ensure that it was meeting its objective, "To provide for protection of children from the possible harmful effects of television."  Apparently, submissions from leading experts outlining comprehensive reviews of the evidence showing advertising's harmful effect on children were not compelling enough.

Here's an evidence test for ACMA: Does marketing work?  If no, then please let universities know so that they can stop teaching it and companies can lay off their expensive marketing departments.  Does marketing junk food to children increase their consumption of these foods? If no, then please tell food marketers not to waste their billions of marketing dollars targeting kids to do just that.  Does a high intake of calorie-laden food and beverages lead to unhealthy weight gain?  If no, then please tell the scientists to bury that particular mountain of evidence.  Do we have the tools to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food? If no, then please contact Food Standards Australia New Zealand and allow them to show you their nutrient profiling model-or ask any eight-year-old kid. 

Over 20,000 postcard submissions were sent to ACMA as part of the "Pull The Plug" petition led by the Cancer Council.  These calls for action are unmistakable signs of ‘prevailing community standards', one of the principles guiding ACMA's decisions, but balancing regulatory reform against the impact on broadcasters revenue resulted in profit for broadcasters coming before children's health. Ironically, in the UK where junk food advertising has been restricted, there has been no decline in advertising revenue on children's channels, in fact there has been an increase at a time where the country is suffering a recession.

Australia has a very high rate of junk food TV ads directly targeting children compared to most European countries. The food industry spends at least $250 million a year on television advertising to target children and most of this is used to promote unhealthy, high fat, high salt, high sugar foods. This marketing is ubiquitous ...you don't need to look very far to see toys, websites, cartoon characters, and competitions being used to entice children to want everything from burgers to soft drinks. It's little wonder a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese. We need to start making substantive changes now to avoid the serious health consequences these children will face later in life including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Not to mention the social problems, which can be just as damaging.

As recommended by the Preventative Health Taskforce this week, governments need to take the lead to uphold the right of children to be protected from commercial exploitation. This issue should be about giving children the best possible start in life at a time when they lack the capacity to resist the influence of clever marketing tactics and make decisions that take into account long-term consequences. It should not be about playing off corporate profits against children's well-being.

Contrary to ACMA, the Preventative Health Taskforce has recognised the influence that junk food advertising has on childhood obesity. It has recommended the phase out (within 4 years) of junk food advertising before 9pm on TV and the phase out of the techniques used to marked junk food to children, such as premium offers, toys, competitions, and promotional characters, including celebrities and cartoon characters across all media. In making these recommendations, the Taskforce has recognised that ACMA cannot be left to its own devices to protect children from the harmful effects of junk food advertising and that the federal government has a duty to step. Let's just hope they step in soon enough.

Jane Martin and Professor Boyd Swinburn
Obesity Policy Coalition