The Australian Communications and Media Authority is in danger of losing all credibility as an independent regulator; the draft children’s television standards that it recently released suggest it is prepared to put industry interests ahead of the health and wellbeing of children and the community.

The ACMA set an unrealistic goal of “unequivocal evidence of a causal link between advertising and obesity”; they wanted it to explain a large amount of the variance in obesity rates; and they wanted evidence that the bans will reduce obesity.

These goals are just laughable — the reason that marketing explains so little of the variance in obesity, for example, is because it is ubiquitous. Smoking would explain none of the variance in lung cancer if everyone smoked.

Setting the bar so high has allowed ACMA to ignore the following arguments which a variety of health organisations put to their review:

  • The evidence of a link between junk food advertising and obesity is far stronger than for any other single environmental influence on obesity rates. The evidence that “marketing works” is enormous. Most of it is proprietary — focus group results, sales responses to promotions etc — but it gets translated by highly intelligent people in businesses with a vested interest in increasing consumption into several millions of dollars of ongoing marketing every year.
  • The link between a high consumption of junk food and obesity is stronger than for any other behaviours, such as playing sport, TV viewing, fruit and vegetable intake, water intake etc.
  • All the modelled evidence of likely population impact on obesity points to bans on junk food ads being more effective than anything else.

It is astounding that ACMA has misinterpreted the science to justify putting such a high value on potential lost income from broadcasters and such a low value on children’s health.

I hope that the Federal Government will be asking some tough questions of ACMA. Without a crack down on junk food advertising to children, it is possible that the Government’s efforts in other areas to tackle obesity will be far less effective.

If we followed ACMA’s flawed approach to the science in its review, then we would all be sitting on our hands watching “business as usual” drive up obesity rates.

ACMA has asked for comments on the draft standards by October 17. It will be interesting to see if the Government demonstrates its professed commitment to health promotion and prevention.

Peter Fray

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