Support grows for tax on unhealthy foods and ban on junk food ads

Australian consumers support a tax on unhealthy foods and many support bans on junk food advertising, despite the food industry claiming such measures would be wildly unpopular in the public arena.

The SMH today reported that more than two-thirds of 1500 primary grocery buyers surveyed are in favour of a tax, while 'traffic-light' labelling on all packaged foods also received strong support.

The government and food industry have to date both refused to implement these publically supported measures claiming ‘traffic-light’ labelling wouldn’t work and have instead asked a committee to put together a new labelling system that doesn’t include the ‘traffic-light’ idea.

Jane Martin, leader of the Cancer Council of Victoria study and a member of the committee told the SMH ''they've said there is not enough evidence for it, so we have been asked to instead create something with no evidence behind it whatsoever''.

Martin said that researchers were surprised nearly 90 per cent of respondents agreed food manufacturers should be forced to cut fat, sugar, and salt levels in processed foods.

''I was shocked at the high public support for regulation, yet that sentiment is not something that has come through so far in this debate,'' Martin said.

According to a survey of 1200 people conducted by the Australian National University on attitudes to food security, and reported by Food Magazine, more than 75 per cent of Australians support a ban on junk food advertising in children’s television, and almost 20 per cent support a total ban.

Timothy Gill, principal research fellow and scientific programs manager at the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise at the University of Sydney, said restricting junk food advertising is a way to give parents more support when it comes to combating childhood obesity.

“You only have to experience the trauma of trying to shop with young children in the supermarket, and being pulled every which way by a child demanding a particular food product that has been marketed to appeal to them,” Gill said.

In October, Food Magazine reported the introduction of the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s (AFGC) Responsible Marketing to Children Initiative (RMCI). The RMCI is a self regulation policy created to reduce the number of junk food ads aimed at children.

The policy was slammed by health experts when research conducted by the University of Sydney and the Cancer Council found the effectiveness of self-regulatory pledges by members show the industry has no credibility and has failed to protect children against obesity.

The researchers also highlighted that there are no incentives for food manufacturers to avoid targeting children and despite the introduction the RMCI and other self-regulation pledges in 2009, the frequency of junk food ads remained unchanged from last year.

The AFGC blamed a scheduling error after the number of junk food ads targeted at children last year actually increased rather then decreased.

Further changes to the voluntary industry codes, reported this week by Food means junk food will not be promoted during television programs that attract a child audience of at least 35 per cent, a reduction from the previous 50 per cent benchmark.

However critics say the restrictions do not go far enough and warn that children will still be hounded by unhealthy food ads, News.com reported.

Nestle, Mars, Campbell Arnott's, Coca-Cola, Kellogg's, McDonalds, and Hungry Jacks are all companies who support the industry's Responsible Children's Marketing Initiative.

"It does not go far enough to reduce exposure because it won't actually pick up programs that are watched by the greatest number of children overall," Martin said.

Earlier this year, Cristel Leemhuis from the AFGC said the industry needs to work towards improving obesity rates if it wants to avoid being forced to make changes.

“The food industry is definitely part of the solution, particularly when you look at overweight and obesity,” she told the Food Magazine Industry Leaders Summit.

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