Parliament debates influence of unhealthy product ads on children

Two children sitting on a tyre swing, facing away from camera.

Malcolm Baalman, PHAA Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor

Yesterday, key members of federal Parliament with health experience – including an Assistant Minister – agreed that action is urgently needed to meet community expectations about protecting children from advertising of unhealthy products including junk food, alcohol, and gambling.

The debate (p.61 onwards) was initiated by Independent MP for Mackellar Dr Sophie Scamps, a former GP.

Dr Scamps spoke of the “pervasive marketing of harmful products to children in Australia. The products I am referring to are ones that have the potential to cause or contribute to harm at both an individual and a societal level—products such as junk food, alcohol and gambling.”



She also noted the public resources wasted by failing to invest in prevention.

“Our government spends billions every year treating and trying to manage preventable chronic diseases and social problems that are fueled by such harmful products—problems such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke caused by unhealthy diet and being overweight, problems such as mental distress, suicide, family breakdown, crime and bankruptcy resulting from gambling addiction and problems such as family violence, job loss, injury, accidents and sexual assault resulting from alcohol misuse or abuse.”

“The [National Obesity Strategy] found that being overweight and obese costs the Australian health system $12 billion a year, and this could rise to $88 billion by 2032 if nothing is done. These figures show that this is a societal problem, not just an individual one, and it requires a societal response.”

“At a time when our health system is in crisis, rather than pouring endless dollars into end-stage disease management, we should be acting to prevent these problems and not just because it would save the budget bottom line but because we should be creating environments that support our children to thrive both physically and mentally.”

“Our current situation, however, is very different to this. Children are exposed to endless junk food ads on TV, radio and digital media platforms. The average child aged five to eight years old is exposed to at least 827 unhealthy food advertisements on TV each year.”

“Dangerous” targeting on digital platforms

“But far more dangerous is the individual targeting of our children on digital platforms, where their personal data is being mined and sold,” Dr Scamps highlighted.

“One study of teens active on social media in Victoria showed that they had been individually tagged with over 1,000 labels and that this data had been sold to 194 different companies. Social media advertising algorithms are targeted and they learn.”

“What does this mean for the obesity epidemic amongst our young people? Research has shown that exposure to junk food advertising leads directly to an increase in both caloric intake and weight gain. So a powerful way to help prevent being unhealthily overweight at both the individual and the population level would be to regulate children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

“Approximately 40 countries, including the UK, Ireland and Norway, have already regulated or are planning to regulate junk food advertising. Just last year the UK government legislated a ban on junk food advertising on TV between 6 am and 9 pm from 2024, and it will ban it entirely from social and digital media platforms. I am proposing we introduce a similar model here in Australia.”

“Our Privacy Act must also be strengthened so that our children’s personal digital data cannot be collected or sold. It should not be possible for our children to be preyed upon for profit in this way, to their own detriment.”

Assistant Minister McBride discusses government goals

The Government was represented in the debate by Emma McBride MP, the Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health, formerly a specialist mental health pharmacist.

Assistant Minister McBride told Parliament that the Government was “committed to inimizati the harms of gambling, junk food and alcohol in our community”, and was “committed to a program of work to inimizat media regulations and fulfil the legitimate expectations of consumers and industry for consistency, transparency and equity in our regulatory environment.”

McBride noted that only hours before the debate, the Government had released a draft of proposed new tobacco control legislation, “which supports the National Tobacco Strategy and commits to reducing daily smoking prevalence to below 10 per cent by 2025 and five per cent or less by 2030.” She noted that “the strategy calls for the elimination of all tobacco related advertising, promotion and sponsorship.”

The Assistant Minister also said “there is serious concern about gambling advertising across the community and it’s clear the status quo isn’t good enough. On a per capita basis, Australians are losing $1,300 each year. That is higher than any other country. We want to make sure our approach to reform is comprehensive, is evidence based and examines the multiple channels over which advertising is delivered, including broadcast, social media and branding.”

Responding to Dr Scamps comments on junk food, the Assistant Minister said that “our Government is addressing the urgent need to reform junk food advertising for all Australians but especially for children.

“In the 2022-23 budget, $500,000 was included over two years to support a feasibility study to explore the current landscape of unhealthy food marketing and advertising to children and to consider options for implementing restrictions across Australia. We are continuing to support that measure. The study will provide a better understanding of the regulatory and non-regulatory options available to limit such marketing and advertising to children as well as the costs and benefits of these options, with recommendations to be provided to government.”

She also addressed gambling reform calls, saying that “The Albanese government established an inquiry into online gambling and its impacts on those experiencing gambling harm and we await the final report, which will be presented in the coming months.

“As a government, we will take the recommendations from that inquiry very seriously and, of course, provide a considered response. In doing so, we will make sure that our action is thorough, evidence based and, critically, safe for the community.”

On alcohol, the Assistant Minister said that “our Government is committed to making sure that alcohol advertising does not encourage excessive or rapid consumption and doesn’t encourage minors to drink or to behave in an irresponsible manner that would put them at risk to themselves or others.”

Crossbench members share concerns; political integrity mentioned

A variety of other crossbench members also contributed to the unhealthy product advertising discussion.

Independent Zali Steggall highlighted the impacts of greenwashing of fossil fuel industrial activities. Allegra Spender spoke a variety of impacts on children, including gambling marketing. Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie continued his ongoing advocacy for reform of gambling laws in Australia, highlighting the impact of advertising.

Independent Dr Helen Haines spoke of the nation’s history of dealing with both tobacco and alcohol, but said Australia had fallen behind in controlling the effects of advertising. “We’re now at a moment when we are faced with mounting evidence about the harms caused by other harmful products, such as gambling and junk food, in addition to alcohol,” she told the House.

“The ways in which these products are advertised, particularly to children, is becoming more insidious, more targeted and more advanced much more quickly than policymakers can keep up with. We’re not just talking about advertising on television and radio, but advertising on social media, billboards, sponsorship deals and more, as we’ve heard this afternoon.

“The ways in which these products have become synonymous with sporting codes, competitions, clubs and activities is no accident. None of this is by accident. We know that children between the ages of four and six believe that a product is better for you if it has a cartoon on its packaging. We also know that Australian adolescents are exposed to almost 100 promotions for junk food per week from online sources.”

Rebekha Sharkie MP linked the health issues to political integrity problems.  “With respect to tobacco, apart from the National Party and I think the Liberal Democrats, the major parties and Independents no longer accept political donations from the tobacco industry, but they certainly do still accept them from gambling organisations—and a very significant amount of money, too. According to, since 2012, between gambling, tobacco and alcohol, the Labor Party have accepted more than $8.7 million in donations; and the Liberal and National parties, over $10 million. So, really, when we’re talking about addictions, I think we can certainly say that the political party system is addicted to the political donations that they receive from those three harmful product areas. We need to make a change.”

“I think that we need to have some very real conversations in this place about harm. We don’t do enough. I think the first step would be to wean the major parties off the donations that they receive from these very obviously harmful industries.”

Backbenchers with health backgrounds heard

The debate was also notable as several Government backbenchers with health backgrounds spoke. Earlier in the day, Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler, answered a question in Parliament from backbencher Dr Mike Freelander. He noted that Dr Freelander had “spearheaded the entry of a number of doctors into this place, on our side particularly and on the crossbench, who, alongside other health professionals in the House of Representatives, add real value to our deliberations on health policy.”

Dr Freelander, chair of the House Standing Committee on Health, spoke on the debate, saying that “It really is a matter that is very important to me and my electorate…There’s no question in my mind that Australia has an obesity epidemic. I’ve practiced as a pediatrician in my community for almost 40 years now. Obesity was very rare when I started my private medical practice. Incidentally, in February 1984, the same time that Medicare was introduced, it was extraordinarily rare for me to see a child with type 2 diabetes. Shamefully, it’s now very common.”

“As a pediatrician, I want to protect our children from that, and it is very hard to do that in the face of the massive advertising that assails our children every day—on screens, on radio, on their devices—with very little thought to long-term complications. I will just mention that tonight is the Rugby League State of Origin 2023, which is well known to most members of the House. Unfortunately, while the game is good fun to watch and I enjoy the competition, the problem is that many people will be severely damaged by the advertising that’s going to appear tonight. When I say ‘damaged’ I mean that they will, because of the advertising of junk food and gambling, develop problems that the rest of the community will be paying for well into the future.”

‘Unimaginable suffering’

Member for Robertson, Dr Gordon Reid, spoke poignantly about his clinical experience, saying that “We know that vaping and cigarette use has seen increased morbidity, increase[d] mortality and significant suffering throughout our communities—in particular, in our clinical environments.

“I know, as I continue to work in the emergency department at the moment, we see people coming in who are breathless while lying on the bed. It looks like they’ve just run a marathon. They’re lying on the bed. Their oxygen saturations are declining. Sometimes, in some cases, you can’t even give them oxygen. There’s unimaginable suffering that comes from not just vaping but tobacco as well, and we need to ensure that we’re continuing our work there, which we on this side of the House absolutely are.”

“With regard to fast food and increased fast food consumption, particularly amongst young kids, we’re seeing increases in obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. That’s why I’m very proud to be part of that parliamentary committee that has been established to look at obesity, type 2 diabetes and diabetes in general. We know for a fact that if we establish healthy eating patterns, particularly amongst children, that’s linked to decreases in chronic diseases—things like obesity, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and the like.”

Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah MP thanked Dr Scamps for bringing on the debate, saying “Like her, I am a doctor and I am heavily invested in public health problems and harm inimization in relation to gambling and obesity as well as alcohol misuse. These were problems that I dealt with on a daily basis on the frontline at the Alfred Hospital for the 13 years that I worked there and every day for the 26 years of my career as a doctor.”

“There’s no question that obesity is at, I would say, pandemic levels in Australia. One in four children are affected and two in three adults are affected by obesity and being overweight. So we need a holistic approach to tackling this problem. Junk food advertising is certainly something that we as a government are looking at.”

The Top End’s Member for Solomon Luke Gosling summed up the situation, saying that “It should be obvious to everyone, but our children require protection from harmful advertising.”


PHAA has evidence-based policies on Commercial Marketing of Harmful Products, Marketing of Food and Beverages to Children, and Unhealthy Political Influence, with numerous recommendations for reform on the issues raised in Parliament.


Note: First, fifth, sixth paragraphs, and ninth- and eleventh-last paragraphs updated 1/6/23.

Image: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

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