CHILDREN are being bombarded by junk food advertisements during their peak television viewing times, a Sydney study has found, prompting health experts to say self-regulation of advertising by the food industry has no credibility and has failed to protect children against obesity.
In the first comprehensive review of the effectiveness of self-regulatory pledges by food brands and industry, researchers from the Cancer Council and the University of Sydney's school of public health found there was no incentive for food manufacturers to avoid targeting children.
The study of junk food advertising on free-to-air television found despite the introduction of two industry self-regulation pledges in 2009, the frequency of junk food ads remained unchanged from last year.
In a separate study published this month, researchers audited food and beverage ads during children's programming times, and assessed the ads against mandatory and voluntary advertising regulations.
During the two months of data collection in 2010, there were a total of 951 breaches of combined regulations. More than 80 per cent of all food and beverage ads were for items classified as ''extras'' in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, the study published in BMC Public Health found. Two of the five biggest advertisers, Simplot and McDonald's, were signatories to voluntary regulations.
The public health advocate and the director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Western Australia, Mike Daube, said he was ''profoundly pessimistic'' that governments would be heavy handed with food manufacturers.
''The food industry is so large and powerful that it will get away with the cynical pretence of self-regulation for the foreseeable future,'' Professor Daube said.
He said the codes had no credibility, were not well enforced, and failed to protect children from obesity.
But the Australian Food and Grocery Council said international regulations of advertising to children have not resulted in positive public health results.
A researcher for the first study, Kathy Chapman, said there was little independent monitoring to ensure guidelines and codes were enforced.
She said the study, published in the international journal Public Health Nutrition, had looked at all ads on three television channels over five years, finding children were being exposed to as many junk food brands now as they were before ''regulation''.
''We know that parents have the most important role to play in terms of what kids eat but it is a bit like road safety,'' said Ms Chapman, a nutritionist and director of health policy at the Cancer Council.
''Parents can teach their children road safety but it doesn't mean we don't also have speed limits and crosswalks to make their job easier. Messages for unhealthy foods on television, the internet … means there are lots of ways messages from parents are being undermined.
''These studies combined show industry codes of practice are not having an impact and we are seeing such big loopholes for the food industry to get away with this,'' Ms Chapman said.
But the chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, Gary Dawson, said industry had been successful in removing non-core food advertising that was directed at children.