A Short thing on Obesity & Junk Food Advertising

Tackling obesity presents a crucial example of the complicated nature of effective government intervention into a health issue that is largely viewed as one of personal responsibility rather than a condition requiring a community wide response. Public health policy, in particular government intervention into particular aspects of health, necessitates careful navigation of the tension between libertarian ideas of individual rights and responsibilities and the social, economic and environmental determinants of ill health. {C}(Armstrong, 2007; Bayer, 1986). Whilst there is an entrenched view that individuals alone are directly and personally responsible for weight gain (Magnusson, 2008 p.10) there is significant evidence that in fact there are broader contextual issues that mean that government intervention is not only desirable but vital on the grounds of equity and the responsibility governments have to all persons in the community (Bayer & Moreno, 1996) As such government imposed bans on the marketing of obesogenic, high energy food (‘junk food’) on television before 9pm may form part of an effective obesity prevention strategy, drawing on of the experiences of tobacco control efforts and also international evidence of advertising restrictions (Bayer, 1986; Moodie, 2006).

It is important to examine the economic and commercial drivers which create an environment where government intervention is required – because as highlighted by Armstrong (2007), currently consumers are expected to make healthy choices against a background of persuasive, pervasive and ever more sophisticated marketing of unhealthy, energy dense food. Moodie et al (2006) present a strong case that high level of consumption of obesogenic products is in fact an example of market failure in which consumers have little power to resist. In essence, basic economic theory dictates that people will make rational choices in their best interests. However, consumption of energy dense, low nutritional value products is not in the long term health interests of consumers, it is an irrational choice in economic terms. As such this represents an example of market failure (Moodie, 2006). Considering rising rates of obesity within this context, that is, one where not all responsibility for weight gain lies solely with the individual, there is a strong case that the only possible correction for these market forces is via government intervention – starting with the marketing of obesogenic food and beverage products – to make healthy choices easy choices (Armstrong, 2007; MacKay, 2009; Moodie, 2006).

Currently food advertising in Australia is self-regulated by industry, but evidence of significant deficiencies in this scheme – such as inadequate compliance mechanisms, lack of consumer and stakeholder involvement/consultation in the development of the regulations, and the failure to impose clear obligations on advertisers that are effective in protecting consumers, gives a strong mandate for  government intervention, particularly with regard to marketing junk food to children (MacKay, 2009). If the intensity of junk food marketing is problematic for adults making food choices, it is exponentially more so for children – a vulnerable audience lacking the faculty to critically analyse advertisements (MacKay, 2009). Government intervention is vigorously resisted by the food and beverage industry given that they have a strong commercial interest in encouraging people to consume their products (Magnusson, 2008). Self-regulation is often fraught – the major barrier to efficacy being the conflict between advertisers wanting to increase sales and the public health community wanting to decrease the influences that lead to increased sales, a reduction in consumption (MacKay, 2009 p.146)

The international experience of introducing strict regulation for advertisements for high energy, low nutritional value food and beverages on commercial television to children appears has shown to be a moderately effective government response to the increasing levels of obesity in this group (Mackay, 2007). As such there is an evidentiary basis for introducing a ban on junk food advertising in Australia on television before 9pm, given the economic and commercial factors at play, and an expectation that it would have a positive effect on reducing childhood obesity. (MacKay, 2009). However in isolation this cannot be expected to have anything but a modest effect. Magnusson (2008,  outlines how an effective approach to population weight gain necessarily involves an ecologic policy framework – one that addresses the underlying economic and environmental risk factors that are contributing to rising obesity rates, including, importantly the socio economic ‘gradient’ that shows a strong correlation between poverty and obesity. By favouring an ecological framework approach and establishing an effective arsenal of government policy solutions and interventions (of which banning advertising before 9pm on television would form a part) including, potentially, taxing, spending, health education and investment, legislative changes and incentives as part of a multi-sectoral, whole of government approach, rising rates of obesity in the population can be more effectively addressed.   (Magnusson, 2008)



{C}Armstrong, R. M. (2007). Obesity, law and personal responsibility. Medical Journal of Australia, 186(1), 20.

Bayer, R. a. M., J.D. (1986). Health promotion: ethical and social dilemmas of government policy. Health affairs, 5(2), 72-85.

MacKay, S. (2009). Food advertising and obesity in Australia : to what extent can self-regulation protect the interests of children? Monash University law review, 35(1), 118-125.

Magnusson, R. S. S. (2008). What's law got to do with it? Part 1: A framework for obesity prevention. Australia & new zealand health policy, 5(1), 10-10.

Moodie, R., Swinburn, B., Richardson, J. and Somaini, B. (2006). Childhood obesity–a sign of commercial success, but a market failure. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 1(3), 133-138.