Australia's lack of regulation of unhealthy food marketing to children
There is no Australian Government regulation to specifically protect children from unhealthy food marketing. There is some limited regulation around children’s free-to-air television, but although this does include some restrictions on advertising, these are not about reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.
The advertising industry sets out some limits on food marketing to children through the Food and Beverages Advertising Code and the Children’s Advertising Code.
International research shows that industry self-regulatory codes have little impact on reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.
The advertising industry codes in Australia do not fulfil the recommendations of international organisations that are aimed at reducing the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
Limited statutory regulation
There is no Australian Government regulation to specifically protect children from unhealthy food marketing. See Policies to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing for more information on what could be done at a regulatory level.
There is some limited regulation in place in Australia that sets some limits on advertising during children’s television programming on free-to-air TV – the Australian Content and Children’s Television Standards 2020. These standards do not contain any restrictions specific to unhealthy food marketing, instead setting general rules about advertising during C and P rated children’s television programming on free-to-air TV. These standards do not apply to the most popular television programs among children or the times when the highest number of children watch television (between 6pm and 9pm).1 Given the narrow scope and application of these standards, they are of limited value in actually protecting children from unhealthy food marketing while they watch television.
Advertising industry codes
In Australia, the advertising industry develops its own codes on when unhealthy food can and cannot be marketed to children. The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) administers the following codes relevant to marketing of food to children:
- Food and Beverages Advertising Code (Food and Beverages Code)2
- Children’s Advertising Code (Children’s Code)3
Both codes apply to all advertisers. They apply broadly to all forms of media, including new and emerging technologies, and to all promotional activities, subject to some requirements and exceptions such as product packaging and board reports. Both codes define children as under 15, with no provision for those between 15 and 18 years old.
The current Food and Beverages Code has been in effect since 1 November 2021.2 The Code contains some rules about advertising and children, including a requirement that ‘…advertising (including sponsorship advertising) of occasional food or beverage products must not target children.'2
A community panel decides whether an advertisement targets children or not, which considers:
- the nature and intended purpose of the product
- whether the presentation of the advertisement (e.g. images and language) appeals to children, and
- whether the expected average audience includes a significant proportion of children (such as 25% of the audience, where data exists).2
The Code also contains requirements around sponsorship advertising, promotional requirements and awards or prizes, and an agreed definition of what is considered an occasional food or beverage.
- The children’s code contains some limits around advertising that encourages or promotes an inactive lifestyle or unhealthy eating or drinking habits, encourages excess consumption, uses popular personalities, undermines parental authority or states or implies that a product will give children an advantage.
Ad Standards manages complaints made under both these advertising industry codes. Complaints are decided by the Ad Standards Community Panel. Ad Standards has no power to impose sanctions on advertisers that breach the codes or to enforce its decisions, and can only request that advertisers modify or withdraw offending advertisements as soon as possible.4 Such determinations take time and are typically made after the conclusion of the relevant campaign.
The Outdoor Media Association has developed a Health and Wellbeing Policy that restricts the advertising of discretionary food and drink products on outdoor advertising signs within a 150-metre sightline of a school, other than in the CBD of state or territory capitals.
Industry self-regulation fails to reduce advertising of unhealthy foods to children
Due to its recent implementation in late 2021, the AANA’s Food and Beverage code has not been evaluated by independent researchers. However, international studies of industry self-regulation have consistently shown that it fails to substantially reduce the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and adolescents.5 6789 An international literature review of 22 studies (including seven studies of Australian firms) found that commitments in industry self-regulation schemes tended to be vague and permissive, and that the effects of the self-regulations were relatively small.9 High levels of advertising for unhealthy foods are found in several different countries worldwide, despite industry-sponsored reports showing high adherence to their voluntary codes. Adherence to voluntary codes is therefore failing to reduce such advertising.6
The AANA codes on the advertising of unhealthy foods to children do not meet the recommendations of international organisations. For instance, the World Cancer Research Fund recommend that regulations be Government-led and mandatory, apply to all children under 18 years old, and that policy development should be shielded from industry influence – the AANA codes do not meet these requirements.10 Despite Australia endorsing the 2010 recommendations from the WHO on the marketing of foods to children,11 Australian children remain exposed to substantial amounts of marketing of unhealthy foods through multiple forms of media (see Impact of unhealthy food marketing on children).