Advocating for protection against unethical marketing of unhealthy products

phone screen with phrase 'social media' showing on screen.

PHAA Intern Allyson Todd, University of Sydney

The unethical marketing of unhealthy products is an increasing concern within the digital age, from both a public health lens, and a human and child rights perspective.

The Australian Government’s National Preventative Health Strategy 2021-2030 recognised the digital and commercial influence of promoting and enhancing the desirability of unhealthy products and services. Unhealthy products include gambling, formula milk, fast and ultra-processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol, and tobacco (including e-cigarettes and vapes).

These products can lead to adverse health outcomes, including increased risk of chronic disease and related co-morbidities such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Almost 1 in 2 Australians (47%) have a chronic disease. To protect population health, strengthened policy action is needed to address the root cause, and must recognise the commercial influence of unhealthy product promotion on chronic disease.

Digital marketing

Digital platforms have been transformative in adapting our everyday life online during the COVID-19 pandemic through education, working from home, online shopping, and entertainment. However, increased reliance on digital platforms has led to greater exposure to online marketing of products that are harmful to our health.

Industries can exploit people’s vulnerabilities by disclosing people’s personal information that has been collected, monitored, and tracked online. This includes peoples’ browser history, purchasing preferences, and physical location which can be used to strategically target products, at the detriment of people’s health and well-being, including children.

This may seem harmless when your social media algorithm is filled with advertisements and sponsored posts of clothes, shoes, or bikes.

But it can be harmful when products are being promoted to vulnerable people, including those trying to become sober or give up smoking. As people have limited autonomy or consent over how their online personal data is being used, it can allow industries to use exploitative marketing techniques such as neuromarketing, and emotional analytics to target their harmful products, limiting the population’s ability to make healthy consumer decisions.

In 2020, the WHO-UNICEF Lancet Commission on Child Health raised concern about the commercial influence of marketing harmful products, stating “it is one of the most underappreciated risks to their health and wellbeing”.

All children are exposed to the threats of the commercial sectors by:

  • marketing that exploits their vulnerability
  • industries using their data and images without their knowledge and permission
  • a lack of government regulation of the marketing of harmful products that negatively affects children’s growth and development, promotes unhealthy consumer behaviour, and increases their risk of chronic disease into adulthood

Current strategies to protect children from harmful products on digital platforms is limited and lags behind international human right standards.

The Victorian Health 2020 ‘Under the radar’ report identified that 72 million data points will have been collected by companies on each child by the age of 13, which can be sold to industries to target their marketing of harmful products.

Facebook monitoring found that 740,000 children were interested in gambling, and a further 940,000 children were interested in alcohol products in 2018.

As harmful products such as vapes become increasing popular among young people, greater intervention is needed to appropriately regulate marketing online.

There are very limited industry self-regulation policies in place that have the best interests of people’s overall health and wellbeing at heart.

Action required

To ensure Australia meets international standards, we must:

  • Ensure industries have high levels of transparency and are held accountable on digital platforms, especially when marketing their products, to ensure their activities do not negatively influence children’s (and all people in Australia’s) health and wellbeing.
  • Prohibit the tracking of personal browsing history without informed and voluntary consent, and prohibit the use of exploitative marketing techniques especially for young people.

The demand for greater protection against unhealthy products is apparent, with a recent poll by the New Royal Children’s Hospital National Child Health that found nine out of ten Australian parents want laws to regulate ready-made foods to ensure they provide adequate nutrition for young children.

Without strengthened policy to restrict unethical marketing early in the life course, children will continue to be at risk of poorer health and wellbeing.

In the lead up to the 2022 federal election, the PHAA is advocating for the protection against unhealthy products. Learn more about the PHAA’s #VoteForPublicHealth campaign, including our call to action to protect against unhealthy products.

Further resources


Image: Adem AY/Unsplash


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