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Effectiveness of food industry accord challenged

Monday, August 14, 2006

Effectiveness of food industry accord challenged

Marketing researcher Professor Janet Hoek says despite an accord signed nearly two years ago, the food, advertising and media sectors still haven’t taken the steps necessary to solve the problem of obesity.

She says it’s now time for the Government to step in. On her hit list are cheap food “combos”, using sporting heroes in advertising, food sold in schools and using chocolate for fundraising.

The Food Industry Accord, launched in September 2004, was billed as a major, self-regulatory industry initiative to help address the issue of obesity. It commits participants to recognising that obesity is a major risk to public health and to working co-operatively to tackle it. The launch was attended by then Health Minister Annette King who had previously floated the idea of a so-called “fat tax”. Earlier this year Ms King said the accord must work, or future governments may reconsider the concept of self-regulation.

Professor Hoek and fellow researcher Ninya Maubach have been reviewing self-regulatory initiatives like the accord and say it’s clear that stronger measures are needed. “In our view, the industry has focused on ‘supply measures’, but has overlooked restraint in their marketing activities, which generate demand,” Professor Hoek says.

The researchers say measures such as product re-formulation can help but these benefits are unlikely to be realised if marketing and promotion still support less healthy items. “It’s one thing to introduce new products lower in fat, salt and sugar but this needs to be matched by changes in marketing. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar are still regularly advertised and discounted, and consumers are rewarded with loyalty gifts and competition entries for purchasing them. This means there’s no incentive for consumers to change their behaviour and adopt new, more healthful, menu items.”

Professor Hoek is also sceptical of claims by the Television Broadcasters’ Council that advertising bans do not affect consumers’ behaviour. “Simplistic analyses that plot advertising revenue against obesity levels are a waste of time. We know from our experience with tobacco regulation that when marketers can no longer advertise, they channel their promotion budgets into other activities, such as sponsorship, point of sale promotions and guerrilla campaigns. Analyses that overlook the wide array of promotions undertaken and focus only on one element of the marketing mix will produce inaccurate and misleading results.”

She says it’s also of concern that marketing tools like loyalty programmes do not appear to be covered by new advertising codes. “The current self-regulatory environment encourages the minimum standards required to stave off government intervention. There are no penalties for non-compliance and retrospective decisions foster a permissive advertising environment.”

Professor Hoek dismisses arguments that government intervention will erode personal freedoms. “The industry has constructed a false dichotomy between freedom and curtailment of commercial activities. Consumers will only have the freedom to make choices that are in their long-term interests when government intervention has constrained the current marketing environment.”

She and Ms Maubach have identified four areas where they believe the Government needs to act:

- A review of the various forms of marketing and sales promotion techniques being used, including ‘bundling’ products - in ‘combos’, for example - to enhance their overall value. “People respond very readily to price promotions and, because many occur within stores, they may not be covered by the industry’s self-regulatory codes.”

- Pairing sports heroes and other youth role models with foods high in fat, salt and sugar. “This sends conflicting messages to children and adults alike. Even where sportspeople promote so-called healthier ranges, there’s evidence that consumers associate them with the overall brand.”

- Limiting advertising in prime time as well as during children’s’ programmes. We know prime time television increasingly attracts children, and we have to ensure that advertising during this time promotes, rather than detracts from, healthier eating habits.”

- School canteens, vending machines and food products used for fundraising. “The discrepancies between what children are taught about good nutrition and the choices given to them at schools need urgent attention. School canteens and vending machines need to support healthier food choices.

We’d like to see fund-raising efforts move away from chocolate sales to activities like sponsored walks - the sort of fund raising that took place before confectionary became available for on-selling. Clear guidelines from Government would help boards of trustees make decisions consistent with the long-term health of students.”

Professor Hoek has been appointed as an expert to assist the Health Select Committee enquiry into Obesity and Type 2 diabetes and was recently invited to join the Health Sponsorship Council’s Healthy Eating Healthy Action implementation group. She and Ninya Maubach recently published their conclusions on self-regulation by the food and advertising industries in leading law journal The Loyola Law Review.


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