Almost seven out of ten Australian adults (69%) believe the sponsorship of children's sporting activities by fast food chains such as McDonald's and KFC should be restricted, if not stopped entirely.
Similarly, more than half (55%) of adults want to see government restrictions on unhealthy food sponsorship of sporting events that may be watched by children, outlined in the public opinion research by the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC).*
According to Jane Martin, executive manager of the OPC, research shows that exposure to the promotion of unhealthy food influences what children eat, what they want to eat and what they pester their parents to buy for them.
"Australia is a signatory to the World Health Organization's recommendation that children's settings are free of unhealthy food promotions and branding, including through sport, because of the impact on their diets, a risk factor for overweight and obesity," Ms Martin said.
Despite this, sponsorship of children's sport and activities by unhealthy food and beverage companies is increasingly widespread, reaching community clubs throughout the country as well as state and national bodies. Current examples include McDonald's partnership with Little Athletics in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia, as well as their sponsorship of Basketball Victoria's "Hooptime" junior development program. There is also the KFC and junior cricket relationship in Queensland.
"Unfortunately there is still a lack of adequate regulation in Australia to limit children's exposure to unhealthy food and drink junior sport sponsorship.
"Now is the time for federal and state/territory governments to provide leadership in developing and implementing sponsorship guidelines to educate and motivate children's sports clubs to remain free from unhealthy food and drink sponsorship arrangements, and instead forge relationships with other partners."
According to Ms Martin, the presence of unhealthy food branding and marketing in children's sport sends confusing and contradictory messages to children. A 2011 Australian survey showed 85% of children questioned thought that food and beverage companies sponsored sport to help out sports clubs, and 59% of children liked to return the favour to these sponsors by buying their products.
"By ‘partnering' with junior sporting clubs, food companies exploit children's vulnerability and engender positive associations. Involvement in junior sports not only allows opportunities to introduce children to products, but also builds the goodwill of participants, parents and clubs," said Ms Martin.
"There are other options and kids' sports clubs need to consider them, they may be surprised to learn what other kinds of organisations are keen to sponsor them."
"It's vital that children are protected from marketing of unhealthy food through sporting activities, particularly at a time when one in four Australian children is overweight or obese," said Ms Martin.
"Governments are already funding communities to encourage healthy lifestyles through initiatives such as Healthy Together Victoria, yet the increasingly common practice of promotion through sponsorship of kids sport undermines these efforts. It's time for these unethical marketing practices to be regulated."