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Junk Food, by Paul Biegler

A hands-off approach to regulation means more child obesity

It’s a bit of a schlep up to the platforms at our local train station. I’d guess the ramp is a one-in-eight gradient, steep enough to get some puff going. On an overcast weekday morning, the roar of traffic muted by a stiff south-westerly, I made the ascent with my three kids in tow. We climbed with a steady tramp and soon gained on a young boy and his Dad about to summit. The kid was clearly in trouble, the exertion taking its toll. I looked back as we overtook them.

The boy’s blonde fringe framed a face without angles. His cheeks were like the lumps of dough that dot the bench at our local pizza joint. Their port-red tinge set off blue eyes that sparkled but had a weariness I’m more used to seeing in old people. The pair plateaued and Dad searched for his Myki smartcard. I noticed the boy’s waist rolling over his elasticated shorts, the blue fabric stretched taut by his outsized thighs.

Dad put his Myki away, then reached into a bag, pulled out a jumbo-sized purple Slurpee and passed it to the boy. The youngster put straw to lips, moved a few steps away, and surveyed the people milling on the platform. His cheeks worked eagerly to the backdrop of office garb and the morning rush. Soon his rhythmic drafts were as calm as those of a suckling infant. By my reckoning, he was five years old.

It’s in our hardwiring to close ranks when our young and vulnerable are threatened. And so the temptation is to fire a volley of accusations at this nutritionally negligent parent. But any who might feel the invective rising would find themselves in high-level company. In a 2005 Four Corners interview, then Howard government Health Minister Tony Abbott was asked what responsibility parents should take for childhood obesity. ‘No one is in charge of what goes into kids’ mouths except their parents. It is up to parents more than anyone to take this matter in hand’ was his answer.

Children’s waistlines have crossed new frontiers since Abbott’s assured reply. A quarter of Australia’s young now qualify as overweight or obese. They may be tomorrow’s cardiac flatliners. They risk diabetes and its related harbingers of early death, including high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Robert Lustig, endocrinologist, anti-sugar campaigner and perhaps first-ever speaker on fructose metabolism to have a lecture go viral on YouTube, echoes the fears of many health specialists in his 2013 book Fat Chance, where he warns that, ‘despite the increased availability of medical care, our children will be the first generation of Americans who will die earlier than their forebears’.

A team led by Sydney University Professor Stephen Colagiuri has estimated the annual cost of adult obesity and overweight in Australia at over $56 billion. They accounted for the cost of hospitalisation, drugs, non-hospital medical care, supported accommodation and transport to hospitals. Then they added the expenses of lost productivity, early retirement, premature death and carers.

By any measure, obesity looms as an epic and expensive medical disaster. And as the Abbott government collects the invoices, one wonders how much longer it can afford to recite the libertarian mantra that ‘obesity is an issue of personal responsibility’. At some point the fiscal pragmatics must kick in. And this means looking with eyes wide open at the forces shaping parents’ food choices for their kids. The marketing of junk food to young people should be squarely in their sights.

In 2006 the World Health Organization fired a wounding salvo. It advocated ‘substantially reducing the volume and impact of commercial promotion of energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods and beverages to children’. A big stumbling block to an ad ban was the lack of a clear definition of unhealthy food. But the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) was working on that. In Britain 400,000 kids were becoming overweight each year, 85,000 of them obese, and the alarm bells were in crescendo.

Jamie Oliver was making some of the loudest noises. Jamie’s School Dinners had premiered on BBC 4 in February 2005, with the celebrity chef holding up a zucchini and a bunch of celery. ‘Do you know what that is?’ he asked a row of nonplussed thirteen year olds. Child after child shook their head. Oliver was momentarily lost for words but recovered with an exhalation, ‘Jesus’. Things were no better in the school cafeteria. One heinous creation became infamous. The Turkey Twizzler, which looks like a crumbed bed spring, is just one-third turkey. The remainder combines almost forty ingredients, including artificial colours and flavours, and no fewer than three sweeteners.

Over five million people tuned in for the last episode and a quarter of a million signed Oliver’s Feed Me Better petition. When the chef delivered it to Number Ten, Tony Blair was no less sympathetic. Not only did Blair resolve to improve school fare, he broadened his sights to advertising. In July 2006 Blair made his ‘Healthy Living’ speech in Nottingham, and Big Food was formally on notice: ‘We are working on a code with the food industry on limiting the advertising of junk food to children … but if by 2007, the voluntary code hasn’t worked, we will make it mandatory’.

By now the FSA had refined its junk-food formula. For purveyors of foul food there would be few places left to run or hide. The score added points for energy, salt, sugar and fat, and deducted points for fruit, vegetables, nuts, fibre and protein. Low points good, high points bad; four points or more and you were out. By 2007 Blair’s Office of Communications (Ofcom) was unimpressed with industry self-regulation. It announced a ban on the advertising to children of products high in sugar, fat and salt that failed the FSA test. Ofcom’s 2010 audit found the new laws reduced children’s exposure to junk food ads by 37 per cent. That translated to 4.4 billion fewer child-ad exposures.

But Australia’s own advocates of legislation were having a bumpier ride. On 4 September 2008 the Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising Billwas introduced in the Senate. The Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, a formidable amalgam including Cancer Council Australia and the National Heart Foundation, echoed many others in its submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs:

Food advertising to children, which is predominantly for unhealthy foods, contributes to our obesogenic environment by negatively influencing children’s food preferences, food purchasing and food consumption, as well as their diet and health status. Consequently restrictions on food advertising to children are an important component of a comprehensive obesity strategy.

But by December 2008 the Junk Food Advertising Bill was dead in the water. The deal breaker was a review commissioned by the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) that found ‘insufficient consensus’ that food marketing caused childhood obesity. ACMA concluded a ban would be ‘a blunt form of regulatory intervention, with significant cost to the commercial television sector and uncertain national benefits’.

The defenders of Australian kids against marketers of junk food were to be … the marketers of junk food. In August 2009 McDonald’s, KFC, Hungry Jack’s, Pizza Hut and Red Rooster added their names to a ‘quick-service restaurant’ voluntary code of practice. The code mandated that the marketing of food or drink to children must ‘represent healthier choices’ and ‘a healthy lifestyle’, as exemplified by ‘physical activity’. But just what cut it as a ‘healthy choice’ was left to a ‘team of accredited dieticians in consultation with national guidelines on children’s nutrition’. The United Kingdom’s points system didn’t rate a mention.

But glowing reports were not to be forthcoming. According to a 2011 paper in the Medical Journal of Australia, fast-foods ads actually increased after the guidelines came into force. The study spurred Australian Medical Association Vice President Geoffrey Dobb to call for a ban, saying, ‘The AMA believes a more hard-hitting and regulated approach is necessary to reduce childhood obesity in Australia’.

The Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative is a separate voluntary code whose remit takes in the broader food and beverage industry. Kellogg’s is a signatory. In May 2013 the Obesity Policy Coalition complained to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) that an ad for Kellogg’s Coco Pops breached the initiative. The lobby group’s key gripe was that Coco Pops isn’t ‘a healthy dietary choice’ and should not, in line with the Code, be screened to kids under twelve. The ad features anthropomorphised Coco Pops playing ‘Marco Polo’ in a bowl of milk stylised as a swimming pool. The jollity shifts poolside and the camera pans back to a young boy in the kitchen. ‘When Coco Pops and milk come together it’s all fun and games, right down to the last chocolaty drop’, enthuses the voiceover.

The ASB banned the ad—but not because it was swayed by Coco Pops’ cavity-quaking 36.5-per-cent-sugar content. The bureau concluded that Coco Pops is, in fact, a ‘healthier dietary choice’. The real problem was that the ad didn’t ‘promote an active lifestyle’. The ASB was, commendably, unmoved by the Kellogg’s plea that ‘Marco Polo indirectly promotes swimming and pool games as being fun and highly enjoyable activities’. Advocacy groups welcomed the decision, but its provenance was cause for little confidence in the regulatory process.

In August 2013 the Greens formalised their policy: no junk-food ads on Australian television screens between 6am and 9am and between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays and from 6am to 9pm on weekends and during school holidays. Australian public opinion may be swinging in favour of regulation. A June 2014 survey of 2500 New South Wales adults by the Cancer Council found that 75 per cent support an ad ban.

And sentiments are shifting abroad. Mexico, now officially fatter than the United States, announced its own ban on advertising junk food and soft drinks to children in July 2014. That nation has the unenviable record of drinking more sugared beverages than any other, with an average annual per capita consumption of 163 litres. Small wonder, then, that Mexico also claims more cases of diabetes than any other OECD country.

The tide may be turning elsewhere, but lobbying from well-funded Big Food and a hands-off approach to government means change is not on the Australian horizon. The Australian National Preventive Health Agency was a statutory body with a key mission of developing policy to limit overweight and obesity. It had produced frameworks to monitor children’s exposure to junk-food ads and industry compliance with advertising regulation. But the Act to abolish the agency is slated to clear the Senate shortly and the agency website has been shut down in preparation for it to grace the digital shelves of the national archives. It seems the toothless tiger of advertising self-regulation has many lives.

But as the inertia sets in, a major player in the debate has been left on the sidelines. Perhaps the research is too recent, or its exponents are happier in the lab than on camera. But consumer psychology is providing new and disturbing insights into how advertising gets kids to eat. The evidence is building that certain subtle and often unconscious persuasive effects drop under the regulatory radar. And as the research mounts there is more reason than ever to prod our own slumbering watchdog into action.

Note: A feature article by Paul Biegler on this new research will appear in the next issue of Arena Magazine.