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Junk food ads face controls to fight obesity

Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday 30 July 2003

By Mark Metherell

Junk food commercials targeted at children will be hit with tougher regulations unless advertisers act "responsibly to help stem childhood obesity in Australia, the Federal Government has warned.

The Children's Minister, Larry Anthony, told advertisers yesterday there were about a million overweight children in Australia and they had to acknowledge they had "tremendous influence over children".

In the strongest signal yet that the Government is prepared to act on the sensitive issue of food advertising aimed at children, Mr Anthony raised the threat of regulations at an advertising industry conference in Sydney.

"If you are not prepared to act responsibly then community pressure will force the Government to regulate the industry," Mr Anthony said.

The national obesity taskforce, established by federal and state health ministers, will deliver its interim report tomorrow.

Doctors hailed Mr Anthony's comments but the advertising industry said they were unwarranted.

The Australian Divisions of General Practice, which has called for voluntary restrictions on junk food advertisements during children's viewing hours, says more than 99 per cent of these commercials are for food with little nutritional value, including sweets, take-away food and soft drink.

"The high level of junk food advertising on television gives children a distorted view about nutrition and makes it more difficult for parents, doctors and schools to teach children healthy eating habits," said its chairman, Dr Rob Walters.

The Australian Society for the Study of Obesity said it was the first time the Federal Government had indicated it was considering the option of tighter regulations on advertising .

"We have tried self-regulation of the industry and it's time for tighter controls," said the society's executive officer, Dr Tim Gill.

However, Robert Koltai, spokesman on ethical issues for the Australian Association of National Advertisers, said the reaction was "hysterical".

There were already sophisticated regulations under laws regulated by the Australian Broadcasting Authority, he said. And there was no scientific agreement on the role played by such advertising in causing obesity.

"It is facile and incorrect to single out the advertising of certain branded foods as being the way to . . . change society's eating habits," he said.

Mr Anthony said the Government did not want to be forced into regulating the advertising and food industries. "However, it expects these industries to acknowledge that they have tremendous influence over children," he told the conference.

He was speaking at Kid Power 2003, a conference on marketing to children. Its program included the subject "pester power" - how advertisers can entice children so they nag their parents into buying products.

"Let me say to you as a parent - it is pester power and we hate you guys," Mr Anthony joked to the conference.
A spokesman for the federal Health Minister, Kay Patterson, declined to comment on Mr Anthony's remarks. Previously Senator Patterson has said she would prefer a co-operative approach on food advertising.