Date Published: 24 February 2009

New Zealand: a laggard in control of marketing unhealthy food to children

Health News from New Zealand.

Public health researchers at the University of Otago, Wellington say New Zealand is lagging well behind other developed countries in the promotion of healthy eating to children through the media and advertising.

Their recently published study shows that at a time when over 200,000 children in New Zealand (30%), are either obese or over-weight, and we are facing rapidly increasing rates of diabetes, the lack of direction regarding unhealthy food advertising is alarming. There are 1.1 million children and young people in New Zealand potentially exposed to this advertising on a daily basis.

"The recent decision by the Government to allow the sale of fat-laden pies and sausage rolls, and sugar-filled drinks in schools is sending completely the wrong message to children and parents," says researcher Dr Caroline Shaw from the Department of Public Health at UOW.

The review by Dr Shaw shows that there is still little or no control over the advertising of unhealthy food to young children in New Zealand, despite the ongoing debate about obesity. This is in contrast to other OECD countries where food advertising aimed at children is more strictly regulated for health reasons.

One of those reasons is that international long-term studies have shown that 40-80% of children who are obese in adolescence will remain so in adulthood.

The UK has much tougher regulations than New Zealand, and is looking at strengthening these further. Sweden and Norway and the Canadian Province of Quebec have banned the advertising of unhealthy food to children altogether. Recent research overseas clearly shows evidence of the adverse impact of marketing unhealthy food on children's dietary beliefs, dietary choices and their health.

In contrast NZ is one of the few developed countries in the world that is entirely self-regulatory in this area.

"What we have here is a relatively toothless system of self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Authority, a voluntary advertising industry body. This is fundamentally useless in terms of protecting the health of children. It's not aimed at benefiting public health; it's simply designed to control those few advertisers who may breach acceptable standards."

Dr Shaw says 70% of food advertising on TV, in the time children watch, is counter to healthy nutrition, and that television advertising in New Zealand supports unhealthy diets for children. Research shows that children could easily see 7134 food advertisements in one year if they watch TV two hours a day.

The review details moves by the previous Government to institute a food rating system for advertising in children's viewing hours, but many children watch TV outside these times. Targets for reducing advertising unhealthy foods have also been proposed, but so far nothing has happened. The Public Health Bill, which was not passed last year, proposed tools for dealing with non-communicable diseases such as obesity, but this was strongly opposed by the media and food advertisers.

Dr Shaw says there are straight-forward solutions to the continuing marketing of unhealthy food to children, and the growing obesity and related health problems facing the community.

* A clear Government vision which is independent from the advertising and food industry.
* More regulation or co-regulation to implement this vision regarding unhealthy food advertising aimed at children.
* Independent monitoring of all forms of food marketing to measure success of policy interventions.
* Initiating controls over cross border marketing through international treaties.

This study was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.



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