Junk food advertising in Canberra could be restricted to tackle childhood obesity

Terree Olive with her two children, Lucas and Emily, and their healthy afternoon tea after school at home in Franklin.
Terree Olive with her two children, Lucas and Emily, and their healthy afternoon tea after school at home in Franklin. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The ACT government could restrict junk food advertising aimed at children and remove unhealthy food from supermarket checkouts as it considers ways to tackle Canberra's childhood obesity epidemic.

Other ideas being considered include banning fast-food vouchers as rewards for junior sport, restrictions on junk food sponsorships for sports clubs and improving the availability and price of healthy foods at sports venues and canteens.

The suggestions are floated in findings from a public consultation on food and drinking marketing, due to be released by the government on Thursday.

Lucas and Emily Olive enjoy their healthy afternoon tea of fruit rather than sugar-packed snacks.
Lucas and Emily Olive enjoy their healthy afternoon tea of fruit rather than sugar-packed snacks. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The consultation received more than 500 submissions and revealed Canberra parents strongly support restrictions on marketing techniques that cause their children to pester them for unhealthy products.

"Unhealthy food and drink choices are a major contributor to our rates of overweight and obesity and this a major impact on our health system as well as our everyday lives," assistant Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris said.

"Overall, the consultation told us that Canberrans want choice. While a trip to the cinema or a sports ground to cheer our favourite team might include some treat foods, many of us also want healthier options. These options need to be appealing and competitively priced."

Like so many parents, working mother-of-two, Terree Olive knows only too well the challenge of "pester power" when taking her children to the supermarket.

"My children are very aware of sugar content, but it still doesn't help. They can choose a treat every now and again ... and invariably they'll go for the most disgusting, horrid looking thing and we have to have that discussion [that] there are treats that are better than other treats," she said.

"We as a family discuss food and our choices and why we make [particular] choices."

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Removing unhealthy items from store checkouts, introducing healthy food displays at the point-of-sale and aisle ends and only displaying unhealthy items from a height of a metre or more, were among other suggestions from the consultation.

The consultation came after a Heart Foundation audit found nearly four out of five food and drink adverts aimed at ACT children in shopping centres, supermarkets and near schools promoted unhealthy products.

"We understand there is concern in the community about marketing of unhealthy food and drink, particularly to children," Ms Fitzharris said.

Some concerns were raised about the potential impact on business and sporting clubs if junk food marketing was restricted, but any measures that may be introduced would take into account those concerns, Ms Fitzharris said.

Heart Foundation ACT chief executive Tony Stubbs said there was a clear message from the consultation that parents wanted to see less junk food advertising.

"There is no one solution to the obesity crisis. It requires the input of government, the food industry, the community and individuals. So while parents have a role to play, it is also crucial that businesses offer more healthy options and that junk food advertising is reduced," he said.

Mrs Olive welcomed moves to reduce junk food advertising but said there also needed to be greater education about food choices in schools.

"Unless it's backed up with educating our children, just like we've educated them about smoking and sunscreen, we need to educate them about the content of the food they're putting in their bodies," she said.

One in four children in the ACT is overweight or obese and one in five Canberra children have at least six cups of sugary drinks a week.

The government will now consider the consultation's findings.

Ms Fitzharris agreed the government should lead by example and said they would closely look at what could be done in government-owned venues.

"I'm particularly interested in finding ways to make healthy options more accessible and affordable and marketed," she said.