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Food industry failing to self-regulate junk food ads to kids: Cancer Council NSW study

15th February 2017 - Cancer prevention

Study found no drop in unhealthy food advertising on TV since 2011

A new Cancer Council NSW study released today has found no reduction in unhealthy food and drink advertisements on television during children’s peak viewing times, despite voluntary self-regulatory initiatives introduced by the food industry in 2009.

The study has found that children are being exposed to an average of three unhealthy food advertisements every hour that they watch TV during peak periods. This figure remains unchanged since Cancer Council NSW and University of Sydney conducted the same analysis in 2011.

Cancer Council NSW’s study published in the Journal of Public Health analysed advertisements broadcast during peak children’s viewing times on the three major free-to-air commercial television channels in Sydney, over a four day period in 2015.[1]

44 per cent of food advertisements were for unhealthy foods, with 1 in 5 (21 per cent) being for fast food. Besides fast food ads (1.3/hr), other frequently advertised categories were chocolate and confectionary (0.7/hr) and sugary drinks (0.4/hr).

Reducing exposure of children to unhealthy food marketing is part of a comprehensive package of recommendations to address childhood obesity from the World Health Organization. In 2009 The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) introduced two self-regulatory initiatives to reduce advertising and marketing to children for food and beverage products that are not healthier choices.

 “We have shown that these industry initiatives have not helped protect children from junk food marketing on TV and it is time government stepped in,” said lead author of the study and Nutrition Programs Manager at Cancer Council NSW Wendy Watson.

“For almost eight years now junk food companies have been able to take advantage of these weak, self-defined codes because there has been nothing to stop them from doing so. We will continue to see no change in the rate of unhealthy food advertising to children unless government takes action.

“In our study, McDonald’s dominated the fast food category accounting for 47 per cent of fast food advertisements, followed by KFC (26 per cent) and Hungry Jack’s (16 per cent). But the fact that each of these fast food brands have actually been signed up to the voluntary self-regulatory initiatives since 2009 is cause for concern.  

“Previous studies have highlighted loopholes within the food industry’s self-regulatory initiatives. The definitions of what constitutes ‘unhealthy food’ and when an ad is considered ‘advertising to children’ are not protecting children.

“For example, the self-regulation acknowledges that to be considered ‘advertising to children’ there must be at least 35 per cent children in the audience. During our study, we observed that in Sydney alone there were 40,000 children watching the footy and 30,000 watching a popular cooking show, but they only made up about 10 per cent of the audience, so a junk food ad in those shows would still technically comply,” she continued.

 “If the objective of voluntary self-regulation initiatives is to reduce children’s exposure to advertisements that are not healthier choices then the definition of children’s viewing periods needs to incorporate times when high numbers of children are viewing, irrespective of the ratio to total audience numbers.”

“Cancer Council NSW is calling on government to take long-awaited action to regulate to protect children from the impact and influence of junk food advertising, so that they can take a healthier path into adult life,” continued Ms Watson

– Ends –

Media contact: Laura Cairnduff, PR Manager, Cancer Council NSW, laurac@nswcc.org.au / 02 9334 1408 / 0413 889 283

Media interviews: Wendy Watson, Nutrition Programs Manager at Cancer Council NSW

 

Notes to editors

About the study

  • Advertising to children initiatives have not reduced unhealthy food advertising on Australian television was published in Journal of Public Health, February 2017.
  • In response to rising childhood obesity rates, the Australian food industry implemented two initiatives in 2009 to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food to children – the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI) for food and beverage grocery manufacturers and the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative (QSRI) for fast-food companies.
  • These initiatives have defined children’s viewing periods as either within C- and P- programs or when children are at least 35 per cent of the audience.
  • This study evaluated the efficacy of these initiatives on the rate of unhealthy food advertising to children on Australian television.
  • Cancer Council NSW’s study looked beyond the food industry defined parameters, analysing advertisements that aired during children’s peak viewing times. Peak viewing times were defined as 06.00 to 09.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekdays and 06.00 to 12.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekends.
  • The rates of food advertisements on three free-to-air commercial television channels in Sydney, Australia (7, 9, 10) were analysed over 2 weekdays (16 h) and two weekend days (22 h). An additional youth-oriented digital channel was also analysed. Advertisements were categorised according to the healthiness of foods advertised (non-core or ‘unhealthy’, core or ‘healthy’, and miscellaneous) and by signatory status to the food industry advertising initiatives.

Key findings

  • Children are being exposed to an average of three unhealthy food advertisements every hour that they watch TV during peak periods.
  • The rate of unhealthy (non-core) food advertising had not dropped since 2011 (3.08 ads per hour in 2011 vs 3.00 ads per hour in 2015), suggesting minimal impact of the current food industry initiatives on reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising.
  • 44 per cent of food advertisements were for unhealthy foods
  • 21 per cent of food advertisements were for fast food
  • Besides fast food ads (1.3/hr), other frequently advertised categories were chocolate and confectionary (0.7/hr) and sugary drinks (0.4/hr).
  • Television advertising is still a major channel for unhealthy brands to promote their products and there has been a 33 per cent increase in the rates of food advertising on television since 2011. While there is some good news with an increase in healthy (core) and miscellaneous food advertising (which includes supermarket advertising, for example), this has not been countered by a drop in unhealthy food advertising, with the study showing no change since Cancer Council NSW and University of Sydney last looked at the situation in 2011.
  • There have been no changes in the self-regulatory initiatives since 2009 with the original 7 QSRI signatories and limited changes to the 18 RCMI signatories.

Further notes

  • Cancer Council NSW’s study also showed that advertisers are expanding into new television markets to target children. The study analysed an additional non-primary, digital channel – GO! – which broadcasts over half of the top C- and P- rated programs in 2013. This channel had a much lower food advertisement rate compared to the primary channels, but the same rate of fast-food advertisements (1.3/hour). 69 per cent of the fast-food advertisements were for children’s meals.

 

Examples of children’s viewing audience numbers during the study, average numbers of ads per hour by food category during children’s peak viewing times are available on request.

[1] Peak times were defined as 06.00 to 09.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekdays and 06.00 to 12.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekends.

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