This self-regulation often inspires stand-offs between health watchdogs and sellers, with the former often accusing the latter of pushing the boundaries to promote their products at the expense of consumer health—especially in terms of promoting junk food to children.
Litany of loopholes
Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), a group of health and academic bodies Victoria, claimed its analysis was one of the most comprehensive studies ever of the subject.
She said that the report—named Exposing the Charade—highlighted the “litany of loopholes” used by the processed food industry to continue to promote its products despite childhood obesity sitting at record levels.
"We have rigorously interrogated the current system and found it has failed in three key ways,” she said. "The codes themselves are seriously flawed, administration and enforcement of the codes are inadequate, and despite the food industry introducing more codes two years ago, there is no evidence any of these have reduced children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising."
Advertisers hit out
The report has not gone down well with advertisers, who have fired back that the self-regulatory system for advertising and marketing communications is effective and is underpinned by a responsive and transparent complaints handling system.
“Once again, the OPC has produced a document with no evidence or data to suggest that advertising contributes to unhealthy outcomes and conveniently matches its predetermined agenda,” said Alina Bain, chief executive of the Australian Association of National Advertisers.
“It is nonsense to suggest that the Advertising Standards Board [ASB] is out-of-touch with community concerns and standards around food advertising. The low level of consumer complaints about food and beverage advertising demonstrates the system is delivering for the public.”
The OPC report claimed that the self-regulatory advertising codes are too complex, do not apply to all food advertisers and don’t take into account all forms of promotion.
The group also warned that the codes focus on advertising content that is “directed primarily to children”, and so don’t prevent advertising for unhealthy foods that appeal to both children and adults.
Conflict of interest
The investigation also found major inconsistencies in the way decisions were made by the various review agencies, such as the ASB, and there was an inherent conflict of interest in self-regulation, which worked against the existence of effective codes.
The report concluded that there is a need for a fundamental shift in the way unhealthy food advertising is regulated in Australia.
"The food industry has been given ample opportunity. The government must now call time on the charade of self-regulation and legislate to give children meaningful protection from the influence of unhealthy food marketing,” said Martin.
"Legislation to comprehensively restrict junk food marketing and advertising would be one of the most effective and cost-effective interventions to address the childhood overweight and obesity crisis.”
No benefit from a ban
However, the Australia Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) stridently disagrees, with its chief executive, Gary Dawson, saying: “International examples of bans on food advertising to children have resulted in no positive public health outcomes. In fact the rate of childhood obesity continued to rise despite the introduction of increased regulation.”
Releasing a pre-emptive statement ahead of the OPC report’s launch, Dawson cited a recent independent review of industry initiatives that gave the self-regulatory code a clean bill of health. FoodNavigator-Asia reported on the research last week.
“The industry initiatives have been very successful in removing virtually all non-core food advertising primarily directed at children. Monitoring data from 2011 demonstrated that non-core food advertising during children’s programming represents 0.7% of all food and beverage advertising.”
Editor's note: Let us know if you believe that food advertising should come under legislation, or if it is working well as it is. Leave your comments in the box below.