Earlier this year I published an article on self-regulation of food marketing to children in Australia. I focused on two voluntary codes developed by the Australian food industry to respond to concerns about children’s exposure to junk food advertising, and how it might affect their eating habits. My article pointed out the many loopholes in food industry self-regulation, mirroring other concerns expressed about regulation of junk food marketing to children, and described how the Australian regulatory regime might be strengthened.
Jane Komsky recently published a blog post on my paper on The Regulatory Review, the blog of the Penn Program on Regulation. We republish Jane’s post below, with the kind permission of The Review.
They are all memorable characters that children love—which is why the Australian food industry does not hesitate to use them to promote foods widely thought to be unhealthy.
According to Professor Belinda Reeve of Sydney Law School, food marketing in Australia has contributed significantly to the country’s increased rate of childhood obesity. Reeve argues that childhood obesity often leads to low self-esteem, bullying, and major health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. Thus, limiting children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing could help lower the rate and risk of the condition, says Reeve.
In response to this growing concern about the effects of unhealthy food marketing to children, the World Health Organization (WHO) encourages countries to adopt effective regulatory measures. While the WHO offers guidance for the design and implementation of regulatory measures, the Australian regulatory regime prefers to allow the food industry to regulate itself. For example, the food industry developed “voluntary pledges” where companies agreed to advertise only healthier products to children, restrict their use of product placement, and report annually on their compliance.
Although self-regulation of food marketing can be effective, Reeve argues that the self-regulation route does not typically work in industries that have economic motives not to comply. She posits that the food industry in Australia continues to promote its own private interests at the expense of public health goals. Ideally, according to Reeve, the industry should be put on “notice” that unless the industry players actively advance public health goals, the government regulators will intervene with more oversight and regulations over the industry, a so-called responsive regulatory approach.
The Australian food industry, through its voluntary self-regulation program, adopted only very narrow regulations, which focus strictly on food advertisements specifically directed at young children, says Reeve. Reeve explains that food companies avoid regulation by creating advertisements “officially” targeting adults and families, instead of young children, while simultaneously using animated characters that children find appealing. Reeve urges a “significant expansion” to the existing rules to close off these loopholes.
In addition to permitting child-friendly advertising, the current Australian advertising system fails to limit unhealthy food advertisements, Reeve argues. The WHO explains that any exposure to unhealthy food marketing influences children, who, in turn, influence their parents to buy these meals for consumption, even when the advertisement is officially targeted for other audiences. The WHO suggests the regulation will be more effective if the main goal aims to reduce children’s overall exposure to unhealthy food marketing, not just reducing the marketing that targets children.
Reeve explains that to enforce the Australian food marketing industry’s voluntary self-regulation program effectively there must be better oversight over the industry as a whole. Reeve first suggests introducing an administrative committee with representatives from government agencies, as well as other external and internal stakeholders to balance private and public interests. This committee would be responsible for collecting and analyzing data about the nutritional quality of products marketed to children and the industry’s level of compliance. The committee would then track improvement from companies’ mandatory reporting requirements.
Reeve writes that this committee would implement an enforcement mechanism—such as sanctions—if companies were to breach their responsibilities. Sanctions provide a strong motivation for compliance through potential reputational and financial consequences for companies. Similarly, the committee would encourage compliance through a wide range of incentives.
If the committee finds that the self-regulation program does not achieve high levels of compliance, Reeve suggests moving to a co-regulatory system. A co-regulatory system would allow the government to get more involved in regulation by creating legislative infrastructure requiring all food industry companies to follow regulations and preapproved goals. The food marketing industry would still set its own standards, but the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing these standards would be transferred to a government agency, thereby putting greater pressure on companies to comply.
If the industry fails to make significant progress under the co-regulatory system, Reeve suggests that government adopt new statutory measures altogether. Reeve promotes a prohibition on unhealthy food marketing on television until late at night, restricting marketing on media platforms with large child audiences, and banning unhealthy food marketing in and around sites where large groups of children gather. Reeve even suggests prohibiting the use of animated characters and celebrities to promote unhealthy foods.
Once the government implements these statutory measures, a government agency would monitor and enforce the rules. In some cases, the government could even prosecute companies that “engaged in serious forms of noncompliance.” The agency would regularly analyze and write reports about the progress of reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.
Reeve anticipates that this type of government intervention would be viewed as intrusive and would face industry resistance. The industry’s response might suggest that this type of intervention is not practical. But, Reeve believes the threat of this intrusive government intervention will motivate the industry to comply with the softer regulations that should be put in place first. Such a threat will also provide the government with greater bargaining power for implementing more effective voluntary and co-regulatory policies.
According to Reeve, the Australian food marketing industry has a real opportunity to upend the rate of childhood obesity, but only if the industry puts the public’s health interests before its own private interests.