The focus on advertising bans on commercial free to air television as a solution to Australia’s childhood obesity problem (Crikey Monday Item 4 ‘ACMA putting industry before children’s health’) ignores the following:

There is no evidence of a causal link between advertising and childhood obesity

–There is no evidence that such a ban will have a material impact on childhood obesity rates.

These key findings of both the recent Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) report on its review of the Children’s Television Standards and the earlier review by the UK regulator OFCOM are consistently ignored by advocates of bans.

Despite finding that advertising had a “modest” influence of 2% in children’s food choice, Ofcom imposed a range on new restrictions on advertising in children’s programs early last year.

Many of their decisions were simply catching up on regulations already in place in Australia. But they went further and imposed bans on foods determined to be high in fat salt and sugar (HFSS). This has resulted in some very strange foods being banned. Under this definition the venerable jar of vegemite would be banished from Australian commercial television screens.

The debate is still raging on the nutrient profiling system, but what is not being debated is the immediate disastrous impact on children’s television programming. ITV’s revenues were hit to the tune of around 35 million pounds and its programming budget was reduced accordingly. As a result by the middle of this year the only original UK sourced children’s programming is being made by the BBC.

Within months of the food and beverage bans being applied Ofcom announced a new review this time into children’s programming.

Commercial free to air television is the most heavily regulated area of the media. Pay TV is not subject to the Children’s Television Standards, no regulations apply to the print media and the internet of course is wild-west territory for regulators.

Children however, are leading the charge to new media platforms and are no longer sitting back waiting to be told by the regulator what is suitable for them to see. For instance if you want to watch The Simpsons on commercial free to air television you can only see a G version till 7.00pm at night, but you can watch PG versions any time of the day on Fox 8 and you can download it from the internet whenever you like. And there are no CTS advertising restrictions either.

Two of the points made in the ACMA research which Boyd Swinburn conveniently ignored in his comments are that any ban on commercial free to air television would likely result in a “wealth transfer” to other media, and where advertisers retain advertising money to cut prices could actually result in an “increase in consumption” of junk food.

Can we please have common sense in this debate? Let’s talk about what we as a community and the governments we elect can do in a constructive fashion rather creating an expectation that we can just wash our hands of the problem by regulating one and one only form of media.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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