Editorial: Junk food advert ban no answer
The call by a University of Otago researcher for a ban on the advertising of "junk food" to children is not novel. A similar call was made earlier this month by a medical bureaucrat in Toronto. In fact, some governments - Quebec, Sweden and Norway - already ban all direct advertising to children and Britain adopted a ban on junk-food advertising - defined as products high in sugar, fat and salt - on television programmes geared to children under 16.
Any parent who has capitulated against his or her better judgment to the incessant badgering of a child who has seen an alluring commercial played during a children's programme on television will sympathise the idea that all such advertising should be prohibited outright. The Otago University study details how advertisers use toys, gifts, discounts, competitions, promotional characters and celebrity endorsements to sell junk food to children. And as much as parents may curse themselves for their weak wills in succumbing to the nagging of their offspring, it can sometimes be the only way to bring about some peace and quiet.
The proposed ban on promotion of such food to children is intended to reduce the so-called "epidemic" of childhood obesity and the corresponding rise of type 2 diabetes. Whether an outright ban on advertising of junk food would do anything much towards that end must be doubtful. It has all the appearance of a displacement activity - something easy, but often ineffective, that is done in order to avoid doing something else that would be more effective but also may be more difficult.
There is no denying that the incidence of obesity among children (and, for that matter, adults) has gone up alarmingly. In New Zealand, childhood obesity rates have risen from 8 per cent in 2007 to 11 per cent just six years later - a rise of nearly 40 per cent.
Junk food and junk-food advertising with all its attendant devices to make it appealing to the susceptible have been around for much longer than that. Coca-Cola, for instance, has used pictures of slim and attractive young people to sell its product for more than a century. Whatever the cause of the appalling and relatively recent, rise of obesity, advertising must have had little to do with it.
In addition, advertising of food to children is already governed by an Advertising Standards Authority code which says that food advertisements should not undermine the food and nutrition policies of the Government, the Ministry of Health food and nutrition guidelines nor the wellbeing of children. Advertisements should also observe a high standard of social responsibility to consumers and to society and not undermine the role of parents in educating children to have a balanced diet and be healthy individuals.
That last point is the nub of the problem. Children may be suggestible and advertisements should not target them. But parents are ultimately responsible for what their children eat and for educating them on what is good to eat. Tackling that would be far more effective in lowering obesity than any advertising ban.