What is unhealthy food and drink advertising?
When we talk about unhealthy food and drink advertising, we’re talking about promotion of processed foods high in energy, saturated fat, salt and sugar. Examples include commercial fast foods, confectionery, chocolate, sweet and savoury snacks, iced confectionary and high fat and salt meals (like pies and pastries).
The Australian Dietary Guidelines refer to these as discretionary foods, and these are not necessary for a healthy diet. Consumption of discretionary foods is associated with increased risk of serious diseases including 13 types of cancer later in life.
Why is advertising unhealthy food to children a problem?
As they grow, the messages we send children set the foundation for how they think about healthy eating and living.
Unhealthy food and drink advertising has a powerful impact on children, shaping what they eat, what they want to eat and what they ask to eat, undermining efforts of families, health professionals and teachers to set our kids up for a healthy future.
The unhealthy diets promoted by this advertising put children at risk of serious disease, including some cancers later in life.
How is the processed food industry getting away with advertising unhealthy food to kids?
Currently, Australian governments have no formal standards that protect children from unhealthy food marketing. Instead, the processed food and advertising industries have been allowed to design their own voluntary codes for how they market unhealthy food to children.
Unsurprisingly, the codes they have developed only apply in limited circumstances and do little to limit children’s exposure to unhealthy food and drink advertising.
How common is unhealthy food and drink advertising in Victoria?
Unfortunately, unhealthy food and drink advertising is extremely common in public spaces in Victoria, particularly on public transport and school routes.
In 2019, 61% of food and drink advertisements on Melbourne’s public transport network were for unhealthy food and drinks and children are seeing at least 25 ads for unhealthy food and drinks every day.
Check out some of the examples of unhealthy food advertising in Victoria shared by campaign supporters.
What can I do to protect children from unhealthy food and drink advertising?
Talking to children about marketing tactics and continuing to educate them about what a healthy diet and lifestyle looks like can build an important foundation.
But, unfortunately, with the sophisticated and sneaky tactics used by the processed food industry to influence kids in every aspect of their lives, families cannot control or even see all the advertising that kids are exposed to every single day.
That’s why governments have a role to play to step in and protect children – to set higher standards for the way the processed food industry can promote their unhealthy products – so that all children can grow up in healthy environments, free from unhealthy food advertising.
What are other governments doing to protect children from unhealthy advertising?
The Australian Capital Territory has placed a ban on unhealthy food advertising on all government-run bus and light rail services, and the Western Australian and Queensland governments have both recently committed to address unhealthy food advertising on government-owned assets.
Overseas, London has recently removed advertising for food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar across the entire Transport for London network (Underground, overground, buses, TfL Rail, trams and river services). Amsterdam has removed all unhealthy food advertisements that target children, on billboards in all 58 subway stations across the city. Most recently, New York City has ordered that only healthy food can feature on advertising or promotions on city property.
Is there support for similar protections for children in Victoria?
Most Victorian parents want to see unhealthy food and drink advertising removed from public transport and near schools. According to our research:
- 80% support government action to remove unhealthy food and drink advertising near schools
- 66% support government action to remove these ads from public transport and public transport infrastructure (such as stations and bus shelters).
- 82% believe it is unethical for the processed food industry to market their unhealthy products in places popular with children.
What can the Victorian Government do?
Creating supportive environments for healthy eating and active living is consistent with the Victorian Government’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures five-year action plan to support children and young people to be healthy, active and well.
The Victorian Government has an opportunity to protect children from unhealthy food and drink advertising on all government-owned property and within 500m of schools.
It’s time to put the health and wellbeing of our children above the profits of the processed food industry.
How can I support Cancer Council Victoria to protect kids from unhealthy food and drink advertising in my school or community?
In addition to our campaign actions, visit the Achievement Program , the Victorian Government’s free health and wellbeing program that helps you create a healthier environment for learning and working.
What research do you have to support this campaign?
Research around the exposure and influence of unhealthy food and drink advertising on children has been collected from various sources, including national and international published research from agencies such as the World Health Organization and World Cancer Research Fund.
- Haynes A, Bayly M, Dixon H, McAleese A, Martin J, Chen YJM, Wakefield M. Sugary drink advertising expenditure across Australian media channels 2016-2018. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2021; 45(3): 270-6.
- Trapp G, Hooper P, Thornton L, Kennington K, Sartori A, Wickens N, Mandzufas J, Billingham W. Children’s exposure to outdoor food advertising near primary and secondary schools in Australia. Health Promotion Journal of Australia 2021;[Online ahead of print].
- Cairns G, Angus K, Hastings G, Caraher M. Systematic reviews of the evidence on the nature, extent and effects of food marketing to children. A retrospective summary. Appetite 2013; 62: 209-15.
- World Cancer Research Fund. Diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer: A global perspective. Continuous Update Expert Report 2018. 2018. Available from: dietandcancerreport.org.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines: Summary. National Health and Medical Research Council: Canberra, Australia, 2013. Available from: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/files/the_guidelines/n55a_australian_dietary_guidelines_summary_130530.pdf.
- Gascoyne C, Morley B, Dixon H, Wakefield M. Australian children’s exposure to unhealthy food and drink advertising: Research insights report. Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria: Melbourne, Australia, December 2021.
- Gascoyne C, Scully M, Wakefield M, Morley B. Is food and drink marketing across various settings associated with dietary choices and intake among Australian adolescents? Findings from a national cross-sectional survey. The Austral-Asia Obesity Research Update; Brisbane, Australia, 22 July 2021.
- Obesity Policy Coalition. The prevalence of junk food advertising on public transport, public transport infrastructure and near schools in Melbourne, Victoria. Obesity Policy Coalition: Melbourne, Australia, 2019.
- World Health Organization. Food marketing exposure and power and their associations with food-related attitudes, beliefs and behaviours: a narrative review. World Health Organization: Geneva, Switzerland, 2022.
What are the 13 types of cancer you refer to?
Marketing of unhealthy, energy-dense, nutrient poor, processed foods promotes consumption of such foods. Unhealthy diets can lead children to excess weight gain and associated short- and long-term health problems including increasing the risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other serious diseases later in life.
Being above a healthy weight in childhood increases the likelihood of being above a healthy weight in adulthood, which in turn increases the risk of at least 13 types of cancer. These include breast (post-menopause); bowel; kidney; liver; endometrial; ovarian; stomach; thyroid; oesophagus; gallbladder; pancreas; blood cell (multiple myeloma); and prostate (advanced) cancers.
Being above a healthy weight causes nearly 5,300 cancer cases in Australian adults each year – and they are mostly preventable.