Kiwi kids are exposed to 27 junk food advertisements a day, study finds

Joint Otago and Auckland universities study called Kids' Cam has revealed the junk food advertising that bombards ...
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Joint Otago and Auckland universities study called Kids' Cam has revealed the junk food advertising that bombards children each day

Some Kiwi kids are being bombarded with an average of 27 junk food advertisements a day in their schools, homes and on the streets, new research has found.

In a world-first study by Otago and Auckland universities, 168 children from across the Wellington region, aged between 11 and 13, wore cameras around their necks for four days, capturing what they saw every seven seconds.

In one case, a poster for Coca-Cola hung on a classroom wall. In others, marketing for sugary or energy drinks on the sides of dairies or on the ends of buses plagued their journey home.

The cameras captured, every seven seconds, what the children, aged 11 to 13, saw each day.
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The cameras captured, every seven seconds, what the children, aged 11 to 13, saw each day.

University of Otago Associate Professor of Public Health Louise Signal, who led the research team, said the saturation of this sort of advertising was normalising the consumption of junk food.

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"The consequence of that is obesity," she said. "[Kids] are twice as likely to see junk food marketing as healthy marketing, it goes against that effort to help children maintain their weight."

A poster for Coca-Cola in a children's classroom.
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A poster for Coca-Cola in a children's classroom.

The research, titled Kids' Cam, sought to understand what life was like through a child's eyes.

The children came from 16 randomly selected schools across various deciles in Wellington, Porirua and the Hutt Valley.

The results showed they were exposed to an average of seven unhealthy food ads at school and eight in public places each day.

The backs of buses featured prominent advertising of sugary drinks.
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The backs of buses featured prominent advertising of sugary drinks.

Advertising seen on television and in dairies and supermarkets was excluded from the study because there was simply too much of it to count, Signal said.

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But she added: "If they watch TV for an hour before dinner, they see 10 junk food ads."

University of Auckland Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, the research team's programme director, said the findings were a real concern given the high rates of obesity among New Zealand children, and the known influence of marketing on children's food choices.

A child drinks a red sports drink (Powerade) at a sports game.
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A child drinks a red sports drink (Powerade) at a sports game.

Ministry of Health statistics show 11 per cent of New Zealand children aged between 2 and 14 are obese, and a further 22 per cent are overweight.

Sugary drinks, fast food, confectionary and snack food advertisements were the most common found in the study. Product packaging was the dominant platform, followed by signs.

In an effort to reduce exposure, the researchers are calling on the incoming Government to impose a sugary drinks tax, regulate junk food marketing and impose rules that would see only healthy foods sold in schools.

Even if they didn't go inside dairies, children were exposed to heavy junk food advertising on the outside of them.
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Even if they didn't go inside dairies, children were exposed to heavy junk food advertising on the outside of them.

They would also like to see a ban on junk food advertising in sports, such as Gatorade's partnership with the All Blacks.

Signal applauded the children who took part in the study, saying they told researchers they did not like all the advertising.

Auckland University child psychiatrist Hiran Thabrew said it was hard for children to distinguish between commercial and non-commercial content, and most developed the ability to weight up the pros and cons only around the ages of 12 to 14.

Packaging accounted for the greatest amount of exposure to advertising of sugary and snack foods.
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Packaging accounted for the greatest amount of exposure to advertising of sugary and snack foods.

Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich said the paper's findings did not support the researchers' calls.

"They have taken the widest possible definition of advertising by counting food wrappers, and have found, not surprisingly, that they are the main images captured.

"When the research concludes that most exposure took place in the home and was food wrapping, it's unrealistic to think that any of the regulatory interventions they've called for will improve what food is provided at home."

Rich said the study was undertaken before the Advertising Standards Authority released the results of its review of advertising to children, which resulted in the tightening of rules.

The new Code for Advertising to Children came into effect last week, and included restrictions around the depiction of anti-social behaviour, sexual imagery, and unrealistic body images.

"The Food and Grocery Council has advocated that improvements can be made to food served in school canteens, and has raised this with the Ministry of Education as well as previously supporting school healthy food initiatives."

The Beverage Council said the industry took childhood obesity "incredibly seriously".

"That is why we have partnered with the Government to help reduce the incidence of obesity in children and young people, recently announcing a Healthy Kids industry pledge.

"The beverage industry continues to demonstrate strong compliance with self-regulatory advertising codes that have virtually removed all non-core beverage advertising directed at children.

"We recognise that we have a role to play in improving the beverage choices available to all Kiwis, and we will continue to ensure certain products are not marketed to children and comply with self-regulatory codes, which have demonstrated effectiveness guiding responsible advertising."

On the prospect of a sugar tax, president Olly Munro said a new tax would not teach healthy habits or solve the obesity crisis. 

"Soft drink taxes haven't worked anywhere in the world and there is no real-world evidence to suggest that a soft drink tax has any impact on public health whatsoever."

The researchers received $800,000 in funding from the Health Research Council. Their research was published on Monday in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity.

 - Stuff

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