SENATOR BIRMNGHAM: (South Australia) (9:52 AM) -I rise to speak on the Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising (Broadcasting Amendment) Bill 2010. The overarching issues that we deal with in this topic are very important and Senator Moore has reflected upon the significance of the overarching issues of obesity, particularly childhood obesity. Obesity is a serious problem. As the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs quoted in its report on the predecessor to this bill:
It estimated the total financial cost of obesity in Australia in 2008 was $8.3 billion and suggested that by 2020 the number of obese Australians will have grown to 6 million.
These are significant figures. Whilst I have some general concerns about the often bulking-up of these epidemiological studies into enormous economic costs, the figures on the number of Australians who are overweight, the growing trend of obesity and the impact that has on the health of those individuals, and the costs to our health system and other flow-on economic costs, are quite real. What is also quite real is the known link between childhood obesity and adult obesity. It is a fact that children who are obese are more likely to end up being obese adults. However, I do not believe that this bill presents a serious solution to this problem; in fact, this bill does not really present any solution to this serious problem of obesity.
As Senator Moore expressed, this is very much a cultural problem. People genuinely know and understand that eating badly is bad for them, but they still do it and they still promulgate that habit to their children. People know that not doing enough exercise is bad for them, yet they still fail to do enough exercise and they still fail to encourage and facilitate enough exercise in the lives of their children. These are things that are known and it is a cultural issue that we have to try to change and redress.
I see in the gallery today that we have some visiting school groups. I am sure all of those students know that eating badly is bad for them and that they need to do more exercise in their lives in order to have a healthy lifestyle in the future. But there are a range of pressures on this-from time pressures to what is served at the family table. All of those types of issues are there, but advertising is by no means the driving force.
If you look at the evidence in this debate, it is quite clear that banning junk food advertising really has no impact whatsoever. If you go through study after study, you will struggle to find any genuine causal link. In a 2004 lead editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine it was argued:
… there is no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children’s food consumption and, consequently, no reason to believe that a complete ban on advertising would have any useful impact on childhood obesity rates.
It continued by saying:
The claim that food advertising is a major contributor to children’s food choices and the rising tide of childhood obesity has obvious appeal, but as an argument it does not stand up to scrutiny.
Indeed, it does not stand up to scrutiny, and research study after research study has continued to say so. Just last year the Productivity Commission released a staff working paper on childhood obesity that concluded:
… while research shows that television viewing and childhood obesity are related, the direction of causation and the magnitude of the contribution of food advertising to obesity is uncertain.
That is a fairly logical point. Research shows that there is a link between the extent of television viewing-a fairly sedentary activity-and childhood obesity, but it does not show there is a link between the products that are advertised on television and childhood obesity. The Productivity Commission report went on to say:
While research shows correlations between advertising and children’s preferences, there is no strong evidence of a causal relationship between advertising and children’s food preferences and weight outcomes. It is also difficult to isolate the effect of advertising from other factors that affect the television viewing and obesity relationship, such as the sedentary nature of television viewing.
If, as the evidence suggests, the link between television viewing and childhood obesity is tenuous or, at most, small in magnitude, it is unlikely that banning the advertising of energy-dense foods would significantly address the prevalence of childhood obesity. This was a study done only last year by the Productivity Commission-in their usual way, it is very well-sourced and researched-into all of the findings of different experts during that time. The Productivity Commission and the Royal Society of Medicine are not alone in that regard. Frontier Economics released a bulletin in January 2008 in which they tried to assess some of the evidence and analysis in this debate. They found:
Most studies could not identify a clear relationship between advertising and consumption, and those that did indicated the impact was small – a mere 2% of the variance that could be related to different influences such as family meal habits, exercise levels and so forth. Moreover, recent studies of Canada and Sweden indicate that obesity does not diminish where advertising to children has been banned.
I emphasise the last sentence because this is the key point of this debate. We are debating a bill put forward by the Greens proposing to ban and restrict certain types of food advertising, doing so under the premise that it will somehow have an impact on obesity, yet I am unable to find clear-cut evidence, research, studies or data that suggest it will. What you can find are suggestions that there are better ways of tackling childhood obesity. The PC report, which I referenced before, highlights other alternative community based interventions. In Australia, it highlighted the Be Active Eat Well program, saying:
The intervention was designed and implemented by parents and local organisations (such as schools and community agencies). The strategy includes nutrition strategies, physical activity strategies and screen time strategies to promote healthy eating and physical activity. This long-term intervention ran for several years.
This is the type of intervention program which is far more likely to succeed. Firstly, it is built from the grassroots up. It involves parents, school communities and local people who can impact what happens in day-to-day lives. It involves the correlation and combination of what you eat and how you exercise. This example has, indeed, worked overseas. The Productivity Commission report went on to highlight examples in France of similar community based intervention programs:
In each town the intervention is led by a committee, and suggestions are received for different community initiatives, activities and diets. Initiatives may include organising games at school playtime, walk-to-school groups and learning about vegetables in the classroom.
Half of the towns showed a statistically significant decrease in overweight and obesity combined between 2005 and 2007.
So we have evidence to say that a holistic approach similar to some of the measures Senator Moore was talking about can work, can deliver change. This is where the focus of this debate needs to be. Talking about advertising bans is a distraction to the main game of tackling this issue. Even if there were any evidence that it would work, frankly there is every chance that the horse has bolted on this because children are now viewing less free-to-air television. Children are accessing information from a far wider variety of sources and different media and the internet. If Senator Conroy gets his way, obviously they will be accessing a lot more internet. There are varieties of ways by children will get information.
Advertising is often highlighted as a great plague on society, but that is not the truth. Advertising does not kill people. Advertising does not make people fat or drunk. For all the claims and desires of different people, especially the Greens, banning advertising is not a solution. We need cultural change-things that bring people back to healthy lifestyles. Cultural initiatives are the answer; this bill is not.