While the Queen recently announced a ban in the United Kingdom of online advertising of junk foods, and television advertising before 9pm, those of us who are working to reduce rates of child obesity here in Australia knew we would have an uphill battle to achieve the same restrictions.
The only way that Australia attempts to control the digital marketing of harmful products to children is through codes designed and led by industry.
As a result, Australian children are persistently and relentlessly targeted by promotions of processed foods and sugary drinks, alcohol and gambling.
Three in four children now spend at least three hours online every day. Every week, children aged 13 to 17 are exposed to almost 100 online promotions for unhealthy food.
Children’s use of digital media increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we know that digital marketing is reaching children at a younger age.
Meanwhile, the burden of chronic disease is increasing at an alarming rate in Australia, with 1 in 5 Australian children experiencing overweight or obesity by age 5 years and nearly 1 in 4 during the school years.
We also know there are significant inequities in child obesity, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and those living in rural and remote areas more likely to experience excess weight gain.
There is also unequivocal evidence that exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods influences children’s attitudes, perceptions, expectations and purchasing behaviour across the life-course.
Conversely, we know that protecting children from poor diet and obesity in the early years sets them up for lifelong health and wellbeing.
Why does Australia fail to act?
Australia’s failure to act is not because of a lack of public support for restrictions on unhealthy food marketing: a recent survey by the Obesity Policy Coalition found that 7 in 10 Australians want governments to protect children on television, online and in the physical places they visit.
Neither is it because acting costs too much.
We have clear evidence that legislation to restrict television advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks to Australian children would result in more than $90 million worth of cost savings, with the greatest financial and equity gains for Australians facing the greatest economic and social disadvantage.
It is not even due to a lack of political will at a jurisdictional level.
There is traction in some state governments and local councils to reduce unhealthy food promotion and, federally, Labor has promised to investigate the issue. The draft National Preventive Health Strategy (NPHS) also calls for restrictions on exposure to unhealthy food and drink marketing for children, including through digital media.
One often-cited reason for inaction is industry push-back. This is indeed a significant barrier – but we’ve overcome worse before.
The real reason we have not tackled this important issue is more prosaic. What we hear from governments in Australia and internationally is that regulation in the online world is almost impossible to monitor and enforce. What is the point of imposing restrictions when we have no way of knowing whether there is compliance?
Taking a lead
We understand this problem, but it is not insurmountable.
The World Health Organization has suggested a way forward in its framework for monitoring and restricting digital marketing, and there is innovative research underway here in Australia that could show how.
A project recently developed by Deakin University and funded by Cancer Council Victoria is using machine learning to keep track of children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising in the digital world.
The research uses a citizen science model to develop an image repository, and then deploys a deep-learning based image recognition system, capable of automatic processing, to identify and classify relevant advertising images. We can use this system to capture data in the physical environment, through wearable technology, and online, from mobile phones and tablets.
We are working to establish this as an ongoing monitoring system to capture where, when and how our kids are subjected to online junk food marketing.
Australia has an opportunity to lead the world in developing and exporting this system to help all countries protect their children from these unhealthy marketing practices.
The public health community has been monitoring Australia’s food environment for many years, so we know where action is needed.
Next Wednesday, 16 June, Australia’s Food Environment Dashboard will be launched, providing a new resource for policy makers that brings together the best-available and most up-to-date data, and summarises recommendations for government, industry, academics, and those working in public health.
The dashboard covers the key aspects of food environments including data on food composition, food labelling, food prices and affordability, food promotion, food retail, and government and food company policies.
The dashboard clearly shows how Australian children are being bombarded by unhealthy food marketing on television, social media, at school and sporting events, and in supermarkets, and provides the relevant evidence to support action.
We believe that there has never been a more opportune and important time for action. There is a good opportunity to address unhealthy food advertising in the upcoming National Obesity Strategy, and to support the broad aims of the NPHS with a clear plan for action.
The Obesity Strategy has been in development since 2019, and we hope that its release is prioritised.
The UK’s policy developments have shown that it is both politically feasible and acceptable to protect children against unhealthy food and drink marketing. The World Health Organization recommends governments should adopt and implement effective measures, including regulation, to restrict unhealthy food marketing to children and establish systems to enforce implementation of legislation.
It is time for Australia to stop putting this action in the too hard basket, and to use evidence-based solutions to pave the way to provide the same level of health protection for Australian children.