The areas around primary schools have become hotbeds of advertising for unhealthy foods and drinks to children.

In an article published in the December edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, we report on a study conducted by the NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity at the University of Sydney to measure the amount and type of outdoor food advertising that children in NSW are regularly exposed to as they travel to and from school.

By systematically scouring a 500-metre radius around forty primary schools in Sydney and Wollongong, we identified that the most frequently advertised food and drink products in these areas were soft drinks, alcohol, coffee and ice cream.

Almost ten thousand advertisements were found in these areas, 25% of which were for food. Crucially, the vast majority of all food advertisements (80%) were for unhealthy foods; an advertising environment which clearly undermines healthy eating programs within schools.

It is evident from this study that outdoor food advertising is a pervasive form of food marketing to children, with food advertising found in high concentration in the areas closest to primary schools.

In fact, the rate of unhealthy food advertising was twice as high in the area closest to schools (<250m radius) compared to the areas further away (>250m <500m). Alcoholic beverages were the single most advertised food product in the area closest to schools. Children’s high and repetitive exposure to these advertisements means that these advertisements have the potential to, quite literally, influence the commercial food landscape of children.

One of the most heavily advertised locations in this study was found to be around the Manly Corso, with a rate of 346 food advertisements per square km in this area, compared to an average of 79 food advertisements per square km across all other school locations.

However, earlier this year Manly Council introduced advertising restrictions to remove third-party advertising on shop fronts, which may yet provide some relief to bombarded children. In March 2008, (which was just before our study was conducted), 40 Manly businesses received notices to remove advertisements from their shop windows, awnings and shop signs, or potentially face large fines and prosecution.

Actions to reduce the sale and advertising of unhealthy food and drinks near schools are also being introduced in other countries, with the Korean Food and Drug Administration introducing legislation banning the sale and promotion of unhealthy food within a 200 metre radius from schools, called ‘Green Food Zones’, starting from 2009.

Unfortunately the Australian Government is not nearly as effectual in protecting children from unhealthy food marketing, with no restrictions on the volume of outdoor food advertisements near schools, nor any limitations on the types of food and beverage products, including alcohol, which can be advertised in this environment.

Clear and consistent regulations are required to curb unhealthy food advertising around schools. The current onus on local councils to impose their own planning regulations does not go far enough to protect children from food marketing.

*Bridget Kelly is the Nutrition Project Officer at Cancer Council NSW and Lesley King is the executive officer of the The NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity.

Peter Fray

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