Tony Abbott is wrong when he explains why his government won’t ban junk food advertising directed at children.

While the health minister is right to say that the occasional junk food treat is OK, citing himself as a role model of self-discipline by saying he’s cut down from two cartons of chocolate milk a day to one really misses the point.

Television programs are saturated with advertisements for junk food, yet research by Chapman and colleagues, released in July 2006, found that junk food advertising still accounts for 80% of all food advertisements. Zuppa and colleagues found the same figure in 2003.

Young children are a vulnerable audience because of their inexperience and innocence. They believe what they’re told and they are attracted by the competitions, giveaways and other sophisticated advertising techniques used to “rope them in”.

They are very different to Tony Abbott, who has all the benefits of age, education, the status of office. He needs to stop comparing himself to the general population — and especially children — and show some understanding for problem facing the community.

In the number of recent surveys done by Australian Consumer’s Association, Department of Health SA, and others, parents are very clearly saying that junk food advertisements are undermining their role in guiding children to make healthy food choices. They don’t want to abdicate their responsibility, as Mr Abbott would want to imply, they are simply asking the government to help them in their important role to combat childhood obesity.

Stopping the crises of childhood overweight and obesity, which now stands at about 30% of Australian children, needs strategies to focus on removing barriers to healthy food choices and physical activity, and introducing measures to encourage healthy choices.

As for proof that a ban on junk food advertising will of itself reduce childhood obesity, Tony Abbott should know this is not possible. Many factors contribute simultaneously to childhood obesity and indeed many of these occur in a child’s environment; it will be impossible to isolate the effects of television advertising over and above other factors.

Nevertheless, there’s evidence by Lobstein and colleagues (2004, 2005) to show that in countries where TV advertising is more tightly restricted, such as Sweden, and also in Asian countries, the level of childhood obesity is considerably less than it is in Australia.

Peter Fray

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