(Non)regulation of marketing of unhealthy food to
children in New Zealand
Three and a half years ago an editorial in the
NZMJ called for restrictions on marketing of unhealthy food to New
Zealand children. This paper discusses progress since then. There has been a
seemingly relentless documentation of adverse health consequences of the obesity
epidemic in the intervening years, increasing evidence that marketing of
unhealthy food contributes to the epidemic, growing knowledge about New Zealand
children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthy food, and evidence of public
support to decrease children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthy food.
Yet there is still a lack of substantive action on the restriction of marketing
of unhealthy food to children in New Zealand.
New Zealand (NZ) continues to be saturated by research
documenting the presence of overweight and obesity in adults and children, and
by research looking at the serious impacts of these conditions on individual and
Three and a half years ago, in an editorial in this journal,
Carolyn Watts and Rob Quigley issued an election year challenge to regulate
marketing of unhealthy food to children, as a step towards addressing
obesity.1 In the interim we have had two
elections, a Select Committee Inquiry into these issues, and a Government
response to the Select Committee report,2,3 so
it seems an appropriate time to revisit these issues and mark progress.
Child overweight and obesity statistics in NZ are so often
cited that they now cause little reaction, but the facts still bear repeating.
In NZ, approximately 61,800 children aged 2–14 years are obese (8.3%) and
155,000 (20.9%) are overweight.4 Like most
conditions in NZ, overweight and obesity are not equitably distributed among
different groups of children.4,5
International longitudinal studies suggest that 40–80%
of children who are obese at adolescence will remain so into
adulthood.6 If this is correct in NZ, then up
to 49,500 (of the 61,800) children will experience obesity throughout their
life. This is in addition to expanding waistlines that develop in
The health consequences of overweight and obesity are better
described than they were 3 years ago, particularly in relation to increased
cancer risk.9–11 Less well understood are
the economic and social effects of this population weight increase. In addition,
the current generation of children are not yet old enough for the full extent of
their body mass index (BMI) related health issues and healthcare needs to be
Marketing of unhealthy food to children is harmful
The evidence of harm from food marketing has become even
more compelling in the last 3 years. There have now been four,
independently-funded, systematic reviews of the evidence looking at the evidence
of a relationship between marketing and children’s dietary beliefs,
dietary choices, and diet-related
health.13–16 All of these reviews have
concluded that there is an adverse effect.
The 2003, United Kingdom (UK) Food Standards Agency-funded,
Hastings’ review concluded that food promotion is having an effect,
particularly on children’s preferences, purchase behaviour, and
consumption—and that the effect is independent of other factors, and
operates at both a brand and a category
The Hastings’ review was subjected to a rigorous
peer-review process,17–20 and was judged
sound enough to inform policy change in the UK around television advertising to
children. While the precise magnitude of the effect of marketing is unclear, the
Institute of Medicine systematic review noted that even a small effect accrued
over an entire population of children substantially increases in the number of
obese children.15 This population effect is
supported by modelling work in Australia which showed that interventions with a
small effect on population mean BMI translated into substantial population
Additionally many debates over the harmful effects of
children’s exposure to marketing fail to acknowledge a crucial difference
between children and adults in this area. Young children do not understand the
intent of marketing. Children are not cognitively developed enough, probably
until early adolescence to understand the persuasive intent of
marketing.15,22 It is not ethical to expose
children, especially very young children, to something that we know is harmful
and that they are not capable of understanding. This was the rationale for the
restrictions of advertising to children under the age of 12 in
Why do companies market to children? There are three main
the 1.1 million children and young people (aged 18 and under) in NZ have
spending power of their own, through pocket
money,5 and/or (in older children) employment.
Overseas research (and parental experience) shows that unhealthy food is a
common item purchased with that money.15
children are an important ‘influence market’ (i.e. they influence
household spending). In 1993 in the USA this ‘influence’ was
estimated to be worth $295 billion.15
today’s children and young people are tomorrow’s consumers; brand
awareness and loyalty are a strategic investment by companies.
The power of marketing is impressive. For example
in 2007 research was published showing that pre-school children have specific
beliefs about brands by age 4, thinking that food wrapped in branded
McDonalds’ wrappers tastes better than identical plain wrapped
food.25 Despite extensive research on the
effects of marketing activities, some members of the marketing and food
industries continue to muddy the waters, for example by commissioning their own
research26 (with methodological issues which
limit the findings27,28) or by casting doubt on
the issue in other forums.29 The irony of this
position must surely be self evident: $2.2 billion is spent on marketing
annually in NZ,30 so it seems untenable to be
arguing that it does not affect consumer behaviour.
New Zealand children are exposed to marketing of unhealthy food
So what do we know about NZ children’s exposure to
marketing of food? Children’s exposure to marketing occurs in numerous
ways including television, Internet, within the school environment, product
placement, sponsorship, and sales promotions.31
Food marketing is ubiquitous; much of it may be reaching children while being
largely unnoticed by caregivers. At this point there is no systematic
monitoring, so our understanding is based on a number of ad-hoc research
projects, mainly looking at television advertising during advertising industry
designated ‘children’s viewing hours’. These projects have not
used identical methodology so assessing trends over time is difficult.
is probably the most common medium of exposure to marketing of unhealthy food,
with two out of three children watching 2 or more hours of television per
advertising during after-school television is common, with 25–29% of
products advertised being food.32–34
Seventy percent of this food advertising is for foods that are counter to
healthy nutrition messages.35
in 2005 showed that children who watched 2 hours of the TV2 channel each weekday
afternoon and 2 hours each morning in the weekend would see a total of 7134 food
advertisements per year.36
to international patterns the ‘Big Five’ (soft drinks, pre-sugared
breakfast cereals, confectionary, savoury snacks, and fast food outlets)
dominate food products advertised to children on television in
it is difficult to draw conclusions about trends in the amount of food marketing
during children’s viewing hours in the last decade it does not appear to
Other forms of marketing
there has been no systematic assessment of the extent to which food companies
market into schools in NZ, there is evidence that it does
occur.37,38 It has been noted overseas that
companies with controversial practices or products tend to be the companies that
place sponsored educational material in schools, which can allow them to
influence discourses and discussions.37
to and use of the Internet is common in NZ children, and this is a growth area
in terms of marketing spend.30 The extent of
children’s exposure to marketing of food through this medium is currently
placement, which is embedded marketing, occurs in television programmes, films,
advergames, music videos.15 (For example, in
2007, Pepsi-Cola had product placement in the following movies: 30 Days of
Night, American Gangster, Blades of Glory, I Now
Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Resident Evil: Extinction,
Superbad, Transformers39) Product
placement is a growth area: it is often not apparent as advertising to viewers,
changing technology means it is easy to insert and viewers are increasingly able
to avoid advertising breaks.40 Product
placement occurs in NZ, including in programmes such as Shortland St,
but how much of this is food related is not
is also common, although not well quantified. One NZ study identified that
junior sport was 14 times more likely to be sponsored by companies that produce
unhealthy food compared to all other
Arguments against marketing restrictions
Debate is vigorous around the issue of marketing
restrictions aimed at reducing children’s exposure to marketing of
unhealthy food. Debate is largely grouped into two areas: firstly, the
theoretical justification of any restrictions and, secondly, details of any
restrictions (for example how to define ‘unhealthy’ or the type of
There is no causal proof between marketing and the
obesity epidemic in children
Evidence from a health perspective is now sufficient for
action to protect children.13–16
least $2.2 billion per year is spent on advertising in
NZ.30 It seems hard to believe that this is not
effective at influencing children’s diets.
Marketing is one of a
number of important factors that need to be addressed, part of larger picture of
A small effect of marketing on each individual
translates to a large effect on the population (due to the large
Parents are responsible for their children and have
control of the family budget
Children have access to pocket money and, sometimes,
their own income and frequently purchase their own food.
NZ parents report
that advertising influences their children likes and requests for specific food
International and national
surveys show that parents want restrictions on marketing of unhealthy food to
Restrictions on marketing would violate the freedoms of
speech set out in the Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the right to advertise legal
products as set out in the Fair Trading Act 1986 and Commerce Act 1986
There are national precedents for regulation of marketing
activities, for example Smokefree Environments Act and regulations (including
international treaty requirements for various controls on tobacco marketing and
There is at least one
legal precedent in a sub-national jurisdiction that supports a state’s
right to protect children from marketing (Supreme Court of Canada judgement on
Irwin Toy Ltd v Quebec Attorney General 1989)
An advertising ban would be ineffective/the
‘forbidden fruit’ argument.
Similar arguments were made for tobacco advertising, but
as part of a comprehensive package marketing restrictions are probably
contributing to declining smoking rates in New Zealand.
restrictions alone are likely to be of limited effectiveness; they need to be
one of a number of anti-obesity interventions.
Table 1 outlines some of the key objections and counter
arguments to the theoretical justification of restrictions on marketing of
unhealthy food to children. These objections are not necessarily specific to
food marketing: similar themes are traversed in discussions about tobacco and
alcohol marketing restrictions.
International developments around marketing restrictions
The increasing international concern around the role of
marketing to children in the obesity epidemic has translated into some action.
For instance, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Strategy on
Diet, Physical Activity and Health calls for Governments to make changes in
WHO have also commissioned two reports on the global
regulatory environment around marketing to
children.31,48 The first of these reports is a
stocktake of the regulatory environment, and the second documents changes since
the release of the Global Strategy. Broadly these reports note some increase in
regulatory activity, although efforts are largely confined to developed
countries, are not comprehensive, and mainly rely on self-regulation.
Attempts to regulate are being strongly opposed by some
industry groups. Most activity is focused on television advertising but there is
increasing interest in other media.31,48 There
is some suggestion that, at least in Europe, advertising spend is being diverted
into other areas (such as in-school marketing) as television advertising becomes
The UK has a system of co-regulation of television
advertising of unhealthy food through their Office of Communications (Ofcom) and
Communications Act 2003. While there are different permutations to co-regulatory
systems, the basic premise of co-regulation is that it involves a mix of a
statutory framework ( giving Government some control) and self-regulation.
Under the UK co-regulatory model, food is defined as
‘healthier’ or ‘less healthy’ using a Nutrient Profiling
Model developed by an independent body the Food Standards
Agency.50 Any ‘less healthy’ food
is not permitted to be advertised on television when the proportion of children
watching a programme is more than 20% higher than their proportion of the
general population audience. Brand advertising is currently permitted but may be
The UK Advertising Standards Authority regulates all other
advertising, including ‘healthier food’ under it’s codes and
complaints system. There are also content restrictions on food being advertised,
including no celebrity endorsements, health claims, use of cartoons, or
promotions (such as toys).53
While the Ofcom system has not yet been fully implemented or
evaluated, it is already apparent there are serious limitations. Ofcom’s
preliminary review 6 months after the first phase of restrictions was
implemented noted that while there was some decrease in exposure to advertising
of food during ‘children’s airtime’, there was an increase in
exposure during adult airtimes.53 Independent
analysis by UK consumer advocacy group Which? shows that 8 out of 10
programmes most commonly watched by children are still permitted to advertise
‘less healthy’ food. Even once the system is fully implemented this
will remain largely unchanged.54
Which? calls for restrictions to cover all programmes up until 9pm at
night instead of the use of the proportion-based assessment of the
audience.54 The UK Government is reviewing the
system due to concerns around the effectiveness of
The Australian Media and Communications Authority is
currently drafting new Children’s Television
Standards.56 The draft standards did not
recommend a change to the rules around food and beverage advertising, although
it signalled a willingness to review this area in the
future.57 Submissions on the draft standards
were divided on this issue. Interestingly modelling work done by the Victorian
Government in Australia, shows that a modest but sustained decrease in mean BMI
of 0.17 units per child, as a result of restricting television advertising of
unhealthy food, was one of the most cost-effective interventions available to
Government to prevent obesity.21
There are three jurisdictions that have banned all
advertising directed at children: Sweden, Norway, and the Canadian province of
Quebec have all had statutory bans in place for up to 20 years to protect
children from commercial interests.31 Opponents
cite the level of obesity in these countries as evidence that regulation of
advertising is ineffective. However regulation of advertising in these countries
was not initiated to combat obesity and thus was not part of a comprehensive
anti-obesity programme; and children in all these jurisdictions are subject to
cross-border advertising that is unaffected by the regulations.
New Zealand: A laggard in the control of marketing?
NZ has an almost entirely self-regulatory system for
marketing. Consumer protection legislation, such as the Commerce Act, applies to
all advertising and the Broadcasting Act 1989 restricts advertising on
television on certain days of the year and certain times. For all other matters
relating to television advertising the Broadcasting Act devolves responsibility
to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)—a voluntary industry body.
The ASA has codes of practice relating to advertising of
food and to children, which members are required to follow, and a complaints
process, in case of perceived breaches to those
codes.58 These codes apply to advertising in
it’s ‘broadest sense’, although some types of marketing, such
as product placement, are not specifically mentioned in the codes or in the
definition of marketing.58
In terms of a response to obesity, a codes and complaints
based self-regulatory system is fundamentally flawed. A codes and complaints
based self-regulatory system is not designed to be a public health policy tool;
it is designed to identify advertising ‘outliers’ who breach
acceptable standards, rather than reduce large volumes of effective advertising
that inundate children everyday.59 Under a
codes and complaints system it is difficult to argue that a single advertisement
is inconsistent with a healthy diet, but given that 70% of food advertising in
‘children’s viewing hours’ is for food that is counter to
healthy nutrition,36 television advertising
does not support and promote healthy diets.
One comparison of international regulatory systems of
television advertising of food to children identified that NZ is one of the few
developed countries in the world that is entirely self
regulatory.23 From the evidence available it
appears that the current self-regulatory system has thus far failed to decrease
children’s exposure to advertising of unhealthy
In the last three years the issue has been on the policy
agenda in NZ to some extent including:
May 2007 a ‘5-point plan’ by the Ministers of Health, Education and
Broadcasting and New Zealand Television Broadcasters Council (which includes
TVNZ, CanWest, and Māori Television). This plan has a children's food
rating system and only food products that receive this rating will be able to
advertise in programmes directed at children from October
2008.60,61 While this is a start, it will be of
limited effectiveness as children watch television more commonly outside the
industry designated ‘children’s viewing hours’ than they do
August 2007, the report of the Health Select Committee Inquiry into obesity and
Type 2 diabetes was released. This called for clear targets around advertising
and marketing of food to children and a commitment to regulation depending on
progress.2 In their response to this inquiry,
Government committed to reviewing the industry’s progress towards reducing
advertising unhealthy foods and beverages to children and developing targets in
this area (in conjunction with the food industry) by June
2008.3 At the time of publishing this article
(January 2009) targets had yet to be announced.
draft Public Health Bill, which underwent consultation in 2008, attempted to
establish a generic framework, and some tools, for dealing with non-communicable
diseases and their causes. This section was opposed by media organisations and
the food industry who perceived it as a Trojan horse to regulate food
advertising.63 The Public Health Bill was not
passed before the
What the new
Government intends to do in relation to these issues is not yet clear.
What does New Zealand need to do?
The rationale for why we need to address this issue has been
outlined above. In order to advance the agenda in NZ a number of things need to
occur. Ideally these would include the following:
needs to articulate a vision about what it wants to achieve in this area. The
outcome needs to be of clear, measurable, and time-specific. (For example, a 90%
reduction in exposure of children aged under 16 to any marketing of unhealthy
food by 2012, from 2007 baseline.) This process should be independent of the
advertising and food industry to have public credibility. Additionally there
needs to be a broad definition of marketing to encompass the range of current
activities as well as to allow flexibility to deal with the dynamic changes in
media technology and useage.40
a vision is developed, methods to achieve it can be considered. Options for the
legal framework include co-regulation or full Government regulatory systems. A
self-regulatory system is simply not capable of addressing this issue, based on
current evidence or practice. Any framework could be incorporated within current
or planned legislation (e.g. the Broadcasting Act or the Public Health Bill) or
could be a stand alone Act.
a specific NZ system needs to be developed, there are principles from the
International Obesity Task Force and Consumers International that could be used
to underpin a framework.64 Additionally there
are exemplars from other jurisdictions that have been successful (e.g. the FSA
nutrient profiling model) or less successful (e.g. the use of a proportion based
measure of audience) that NZ can learn from.
needs to be independent systematic monitoring of all forms of food marketing
activities, so that progress (or lack of it) can be measured and policy
interventions can be evaluated for effectiveness.
should start taking leadership on the possibility of using an international
treaty approach (similar to the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control) to
dealing with cross border marketing.
The obesity epidemic is a serious threat to public health in
NZ. NZ children deserve appropriate protection from marketing of unhealthy food
as part of a response to this issue. Despite the need for action limited
progress in policy in the control of food marketing has occurred in the last 3
years in this country.
Fortunately NZ is in a position to learn from other
countries as they implement regulatory systems. This agenda needs to be
commenced now; this is a complex and time-consuming process. NZ is already
lagging behind other jurisdictions, we need to advance this work quickly and
Disclaimer: Caroline Shaw previously
worked for the Ministry of Health. The views expressed in this paper do not
necessarily represent those of the Ministry of Health. There was no external
funding support for this article.
Author information: Caroline Shaw, Senior
Research Fellow and Public Health Physician, Department of Public Health,
University of Otago, Wellington
Acknowledgments: Thanks to those
individuals who provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
Dr Caroline Shaw, Senior
Research Fellow and Public Health Physician, Department of Public Health,
University of Otago, Wellington, PO Box 7343, Wellington South, New Zealand.
Fax: +64 (0)4 3895319; email: email@example.com
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