Opinion piece in Croakey - How long can the Australian Food and Grocery Council peddle junk claims?

Wednesday 29 June, 2011
by Jane Martin

Kate Carnell’s claim that self-regulation of junk food advertising to children is “working” sounds rather flimsy in light of new research published in the Medical Journal of Australia over the weekend that shows that self-regulation has had no impact on children’s exposure to fast food advertising.

It’s no surprise that Ms Carnell, CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council and chief lobbyist for the processed food industry, would be opposed to effective regulation of junk food advertising. After all, her job is to protect the commercial interests of the processed food industry, and reducing children’s exposure to junk food advertising would be contrary to those interests.

Nor is it surprising that Ms Carnell would consider self-regulation to be working: her main interest is in the effectiveness of self-regulation for keeping meaningful government regulation at bay – and on this measure, it is fair to say that, so far, self-regulation is working.

So, perhaps it should also come as no surprise that a number of Ms Carnell’s claims about junk food advertising are somewhat fishy.

Ms Carnell’s claim that there is no evidence linking food advertising with childhood obesity were repeated on Lateline last week.

“There is no evidence at all to link food advertising to obesity. Zero. Nowhere in the world.”(see full transcript).

And Ms Carnell’s claim in The Australian last month that the Obesity Policy Coalition’s proposal for restrictions on junk food advertising to children “isn’t backed by solid research or science in the world”. .

In fact, these claims are contrary to the assessments of the evidence by peak international health agencies, including the World Health Organization and the US Institute of Medicine, and the consensus of Australian public health experts.

In peddling these claims, Ms Carnell consistently neglects to mention the four systematic reviews of the evidence on the impact of food advertising on children that have been undertaken in the past few years – including two reviews conducted for the World Health Organization.

These reviews have all concluded that the evidence shows that food advertising influences children’s food requests, preferences and consumption patterns. (See the most recent World Health Organization review).

On the basis of the evidence, the World Health Organization has classified heavy marketing of energy-dense foods as a ‘probable’ factor promoting obesity. To put this in context, ‘probable’ is the WHO’s second highest level of evidence classification after ‘convincing’, and is used to denote that a relationship is probably causal in nature.

And as a result of this classification, the WHO has made a series of recommendations for all countries to take steps to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising as a strategy for preventing overweight and obesity. These recommendations were recently endorsed by the World Health Assembly.

Another of Ms Carnell’s favoured claims – repeated yesterday in response to the MJA study – is that bans on junk food advertising to children in Sweden and Quebec haven’t made any difference to childhood obesity levels.

To support this, Ms Carnell refers to research that doesn’t exist. In this article in The Australian, Carnell claims, “… in Quebec after the [advertising] ban was implemented, the prevalence of obesity tripled among boys and doubled for girls”, and says that this is based on “research for the Australian Council of Health Service Executives”.

But the Australian Council of Health Service Executives (now the Australian Council of Health Services Managers) has not conducted any research in this area, and is not a research organisation.

Ms Carnell seems to be referring to this paper given to a 2008 conference of the Queensland branch of the ACHSE, which refers to data showing that obesity rates across Canada tripled for boys and doubled for girls. However, the paper says nothing at all about obesity rates in Quebec.

The paper does say that current overseas advertising policies ‘are not strong enough to promote positive health outcomes’, i.e. because the policies are weak, children are still exposed to lots of unhealthy food advertising. And the paper’s main conclusion is that “[c]hildren in Australia require better protection from television advertisements for energy-dense and low-nutrient foods”.

In Quebec, the impact of the advertising restriction is limited because English-speaking children are still exposed to large amounts of junk food advertising beamed in by US stations based outside Quebec where the restrictions don’t apply.

But despite this, data indicates that Quebec’s combined childhood overweight/obesity rate is significantly lower than the national rate, and the second lowest of the Canadian provinces.

Research has also found that French-speaking children, who mainly watch French-speaking Quebec stations, have lower obesity rates than English-speaking children who are exposed to unhealthy food advertising on the US stations. 

Cultural factors may account for at least some of this difference.

But a 2011 empirical study found that French-speaking households in Quebec were significantly less likely to purchase fast food than French-speaking households in Ontario, whereas there was no significant difference in fast food purchasing between English-speaking households in Quebec and Ontario.

The authors concluded that the study ‘provides evidence that a ban on advertising targeting children can be effective in lowering or moderating consumption’.

In calling for effective junk food advertising restrictions covering times when children watch TV, the OPC is backed by 84% of the Australian public, as well as all the leading public health groups in the country – such respected groups as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, representing the National Heart Foundation, Cancer Council Australia, Diabetes Australia and others.

Safe to say, the interest of these groups is in evidence-based policies to protect the health of Australian children, not in preserving profits.

Jane Martin
Senior Policy Adviser
Obesity Policy Coalition

Published in Croakey, 29 June 2011