Health groups release detailed investigation into failure of junk food marketing codes

12 Nov 2012

Investigation finds inherent conflict of interest in self-regulation

Today, the Obesity Policy Coalition, a coalition of leading health bodies, has released one of the most comprehensive investigations into Australia's self-regulatory system for food marketing ever undertaken.

Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the OPC, said the detailed analysis illustrated how the advertising codes that claim to protect children from junk food advertising had resolutely failed. Further, the report highlighted the litany of loopholes being used by the processed food industry to continue to promote their products despite childhood obesity sitting at record levels.

"We have rigorously interrogated the current system and found it has failed in three key ways.

"The codes themselves are seriously flawed, administration and enforcement of the codes are inadequate, and finally despite the food industry introducing more codes two years ago, there is no evidence any of these have reduced children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising," Ms Martin said.  

The investigation also found there were major inconsistencies in the way decisions were made by the various review agencies such as the Advertising Standards Board and there was an inherent conflict of interest in self-regulation which worked against the existence of effective codes. 

The findings are detailed in a report, ‘Exposing the Charade', which has been sent to state and federal health ministers.

The report concludes there is a need for a fundamental shift in the way unhealthy food advertising is regulated in Australia.

"The food industry has been given ample opportunity. The government must now call ‘time' on the charade of self-regulation and legislate to give children meaningful protection from the influence of unhealthy food marketing.

"Legislation to comprehensively restrict junk food marketing and advertising would be one of the most effective and cost-effective interventions to address the childhood overweight and obesity crisis. It would also support other strategies to improve children's diets, nutrition and health such as physical activity and nutrition programs in schools," said Ms Martin.

Key findings from the investigation

 1. The codes are seriously flawed:

  • they are extremely complex
  • do not apply to all food advertisers
  • only cover advertising content that is ‘directed primarily to children' they don't prevent advertising for unhealthy foods that appeal to children and adults.
  • definitions of media are so narrow they don't prevent unhealthy food advertising during TV programs watched by the greatest number of children.
  • many forms of promotion and media are not covered
  • not all age groups of children are covered
  • the criteria for deciding what is healthy/ unhealthy is unclear.

 2. The administration and enforcement of the codes are grossly inadequate:

  • the scheme relies entirely on complaints from the public
  • the Advertising Standards Board's (ASB) decisions are inconsistent with Australian Communications and Media Authority's positions on brand promotion and giveaways.
  • The ASB fails to consider key claims
  • The ASB's decisions are inconsistent with prevailing community standards.

 3. The codes have not reduced children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising:

  • there is an inherent conflict of interest in self-regulation which clearly works against effective codes
  • there are no meaningful sanctions for breaches
  • there is no independent monitoring or any evidence that self-regulation has reduced children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising.

For a copy of the report, which includes many examples of advertising and marketing to children, contact Rebecca Cook on 0438 316 435

About the Obesity Policy Coalition

The Obesity Policy Coalition is a group of leading public health agencies who are concerned about the escalating levels of overweight and obesity, particularly in children. 

The Obesity Policy Coalition partners include Diabetes Australia - Vic, Cancer Council Victoria, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and the World