Independent MP Dr Sophie Scamps’ bid to address Australia’s childhood obesity levels

Parent and child shopping in supermarket., parent pushing trolley. Child is pointing at shelves.

Danielle Gavanescu, PHAA Intern and Master of Public Health student

Independent MP Dr Sophie Scamps has announced the development of a Private Member’s Bill that will restrict junk food marketing to children in a bid to curb Australia’s growing obesity epidemic.

Children in Australia are constantly exposed to high volumes of unhealthy food marketing, creating and increasing preference for and consumption of these foods. Over their lifetime this increases the risk of excess weight gain and a range of chronic diseases.

PHAA’s policy on the Marketing of Food and Beverages to Children (2021) aligns very well with Dr Scamps’ proposed Bill, which will prioritise children’s health and protect them from the harmful impacts of junk food marketing.

Last week Dr Scamps and her advisers met with PHAA officers and expert stakeholders, including PHAA Food and Nutrition Special Interest Group co-convenors, Bronwyn Ashton and Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer, Associate Professor Bridget Kelly, and Obesity Policy Coalition Director Jane Martin, to discuss her intentions regarding regulating advertising of junk foods to children.

During the meeting it was emphasised that, by 2025, the cost of taking no action on the obesity epidemic is estimated to be $88 billion in additional direct and indirect costs to the Australian healthcare system.

“As we all know, it just makes so much sense to start acting on this,” said Dr Scamps during the meeting. Dr Scamps, the new independent member for Mackellar, has previously worked in the health promotion space around obesity prevention, promoting physical activity in pre-school children.

Global enactment of marketing policies

The World Health Organization’s marketing recommendations state that it is governments’ role to lead development of policy to reduce the influence of unhealthy food marketing on children.

While countries around the world are increasingly adopting policies to reduce children’s exposure to this marketing, no government has yet adopted a comprehensive approach. An increasing number of governments are implementing mandatory restrictions on food marketing across various media platforms, with over 40 jurisdictions around the world having introduced some form of legislation on the matter. International examples of implemented government policy actions to reduce food marketing can be found at the World Cancer Research Fund International NOURISHING database.

Chile was one of the first countries to implement comprehensive regulation and broad-brush marketing controls with a focus on marketing targeted at children. Chile’s 2016 Food Labelling and Advertising Law combined three key actions including:

  1. Mandatory front-of-pack (FOP) warning labels for sugar-sweetened beverages and energy-dense, nonessential foods (‘high in’ calories, sugars, saturated fats, or sodium),
  2. Child-directed marketing restrictions for these foods, and
  3. Restrictions on the promotion and sales of these foods in schools and as part of school feeding programs.

At approximately one year post policy implementation, researchers observed a significant reduction (35% for pre-schoolers and 52% for adolescents) in children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising with child-targeted appeals on television. While this reduction was significant, the law was not found to eliminate unhealthy food advertising (overall or with child-directed appeals), highlighting challenges with the ‘child-directed’ approach.

“There are some limitations when you target the marketing that’s only directed to children because we know that children see so much more than what’s specifically targeted to them,” explained Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer of Deakin University.

“…We know that in marketing, if you just focus on a single setting, industry will just shift their budget from one setting to the next. For this reason, we highly recommend a comprehensive approach covering all mediums and settings.”  

Instead of only focusing on marketing directed at children, decision makers should consider developing legislation addressing all marketing that children are exposed to. Although Chile enacted a comprehensive ban on junk food marketing that covered all media and settings, including both online and in schools, their ban was only enforced on marketing intended for children.

Industry codes in Australia are insufficient

Associate Professor in Public Health Nutrition, Bridget Kelly, explained that evaluations of industry codes of practice in Australia revealed that these codes had no substantive effect on children’s exposure to junk food advertising.

“For every hour that children spend online they are exposed [to] 17 unhealthy food promotions”.

A/Prof Kelly explained that the evidence is very clear that marketing does affect the foods that children report they like, what they ask their parents for, and ultimately what they eat. Research in this space also supports that government policy does have an effect in jurisdictions where bans on marketing have been enacted.

“There are emerging lessons learnt from other jurisdictions that we can apply here for regulation,” said Kelly.

Call to action

Legislation against junk food advertising is a good starting point to strengthen the actions of the National Obesity Strategy and the National Preventive Health Strategy. Additionally, the PHAA Policy Position Statement on the Marketing of Food and Beverages to Children supports the Australian government prioritising the protection of children and adolescents from the influence of this marketing. The statement also supports the development of a national regulatory approach, including the use of legislation. If properly enacted, a comprehensive approach to addressing the commercial pressures on children and families will lead to healthier lives for all in Australia.


Image: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

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