Health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett responds to a recent Croakey post calling for an end to junk food advertising to children.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
Public health advocates, such as the Obesity Policy Coalition, (OPC) argue that the link between food advertising and children’s food choices supports a junk food ad ban.
For example, the OPC recently stated that “Implementation of [a junk food ad ban] would be a hugely important step toward decreasing children’s exposure to junk food marketing and reducing the burden of obesity in this country.”
However, these claims ignore crucial evidence from three comprehensive reviews of the impact of junk food advertising on children (World Health Organisation 2009, Ofcom 2006 and the US Institute of Medicine 2006) which have failed to find evidence that an advertising ban has any positive impact on children’s overall health and well-being.
In fact, these research reviews found that advertising has only modest and short-term effects on children’s food choices and that there is little evidence for a causal link between junk food advertising and obesity.
For example Ofcom, the independent regulator of communications industries in the UK found that:
Although experiments identify causal relations between advertising and food choice, it remains unclear how these operate along side the complex conditions of daily life at home and school……In both experimental and survey studies, the measured effects of advertising/television on food choices are small. Estimates vary, but some suggest that such exposure accounts for some 2% of the variation in food choice/obesity. Ofcom 2006
Similarly, the report into food marketing to children conducted by the US Institute of Medicine concluded that:
The association between adiposity and exposure to television advertising remains….but the research does not convincingly rule out other possible explanations for the association; therefore, current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity. Institute of Medicine 2006
Of course, a lack of evidence for a link between junk food advertising and obesity in children is not the same as positive evidence for no link.
But equally, the failure of numerous research studies to establish a causal relationship between food advertising and health should not be dismissed as insignificant simply because it is used by some groups to support their case against an advertising ban.
It is possible that opponents of this policy, such as the Australian Food and Grocery Council, are both self-interested and correct to argue that a ban is unlikely to deliver any measurable health benefits to children.
This outcome would occur if there are negative impacts of the ad ban which off-set any positive impact – resulting in no net health gain overall.
For example, in response to an ad ban, parents may relax restrictions on TV watching knowing that their children will no longer be exposed to junk food ads. If this results in children watching more television overall they may become fatter, regardless of their reduced exposure to food advertising (there is a relationship between the amount of television watched and obesity, independent of the impact of advertising).
It is also possible that after enacting a ban, governments may feel they have done enough to combat childhood obesity and therefore be less likely than other jurisdictions to put resources into other (potentially more effective) child-targeted health promotion strategies..
Alternatively, television networks, having lost the political battle on junk food ads, may change their current practice of including health-promoting food messages within their programming (there is good evidence that children get both good and bad messages about food from television) as they have nothing left to gain politically from such measures.
These (and other) potential ‘side-effects’ of a junk food advertising ban are not in themselves arguments against the introduction of this policy. However, they illustrate the need for policy making in this area to reflect the complex relationship between individual and environmental factors that work together to influence health behaviours.
By misrepresenting and over-simplifying the influence of junk food advertising, public health advocates are detracting, rather than contributing, to the challenging task of improving the future health of Australian children.