Nearly 80 per cent of ACT parents want companies to stop advertising "unhealthy'' foods to children, new Heart Foundation survey finds
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Nearly 80 per cent of ACT parents want companies to stop advertising "unhealthy'' foods to children, new Heart Foundation survey finds

Almost 80 per cent of parents in the ACT agree that companies should stop advertising unhealthy food to children, according to a new Heart Foundation survey.

It also found that just over 60 per cent of respondents believed that advertising influenced their children to eat fast food and sweet foods and drinks.

The Harvey family, from left, Ngaire, Chris, Imogen, 3, and Aisha, 5, at home in Kambah. They encourage their children to eat vegetables.

The Harvey family, from left, Ngaire, Chris, Imogen, 3, and Aisha, 5, at home in Kambah. They encourage their children to eat vegetables.

Photo: Melissa Adams

A total of 53 per cent of the parents believed that advertising directed towards children was having a negative impact on their children's health.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council has questioned the validity of the results, saying the number of people surveyed - 327 - was not large enough to give a clear picture on the thoughts of all Canberra parents.

The council has also suggested that bans on food advertising to children in other countries such as Canada has not resulted in falls in obesity levels and that authorities need to have faith in parents' abilities to make healthy choices for their children.

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However, Heart Foundation chief executive officer Tony Stubbs has defended its LiveLighter survey, maintaining it cut across demographics in the ACT and its findings were robust.

Mr Stubbs said with one in four children in the ACT obese, something had to be done.

"What we're hearing is that parents feel that their efforts to raise healthy children are being undermined by an environment where healthy messages are drowned out by unhealthy promotions and it is difficult to get their children to eat a balanced diet," he said.

As the ACT government continues to seek comment on a proposal to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food and drink, particularly to children, in public places from sporting ovals to cinemas to shopping centres, the Heart Foundation has launched its own salvo in the ongoing debate about junk food advertising.

The survey was done in-house by the Heart Foundation, questioning 327 adults, most of whom were overweight or obese themselves.

It used the National Healthy School Canteens guidelines to define what food was healthy or unhealthy. Red foods such as soft drinks, cakes and deep-fried foods were unhealthy. Healthy foods were green or amber foods such as fruit and vegetables and lean meats but also burgers, nuggets and pizza.

When asked if they agreed or disagreed that companies should stop pushing unhealthy foods to children through advertising, 78 per cent of the parents agreed, 8 per cent disagreed and 14 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

A majority of parents believed advertising influenced their children to eat fast food (61 per cent), sweet or sugary foods (62 per cent) and sugary drinks (61 per cent).

The survey found that 58 per cent of the parents experienced some level of difficulty getting their children to eat fruit or vegetables.

More than two thirds of parents reported that they faced some level of difficulty in getting their children to minimise the amount of sweets and sugary foods they ate.

Mr Stubbs said advertising was influencing children's food preferences and placing pressure on parents to buy unhealthy food through their children's "pester power".

He said an earlier audit by the foundation of food marketing to children in the ACT, stretching from bus shelters to supermarkets, found 940 instances of food and beverage marketing, of which 78 per cent was for unhealthy food and drink.

"I think it's very powerful for parents in the community to say, 'Look, it's a big issue, it's a problem for us to be able to feed our kids healthy foods because they're just getting so much pressure from advertising around these particular products'," he said.

"And they're doing it in a clever way. There's online advertising associated with particular games. It's involved in sport. Local sporting groups get sponsorship through some of these companies. It's pretty invasive around where children live and go to school, so it's having a big influence."

Mr Stubbs said the foundation would be making a submission to the government's latest consultation on the marketing of food and drink. He said a straight-out ban on the advertising of unhealthy food to children might not be the only answer.

"A lot of information that goes out is not exciting, it's not engaging, it's not interactive so I think they need to invest in some really good communication to children and parents around healthy food," he said.

"Then we have to look at whether the government does have healthy food sponsorship of sport. Does the government restrict some advertising around schools and playgrounds and childcare centres? Supporting supermarkets to do healthy food advertising?"

A spokesman for the Australian Food and Grocery Council said it would also contribute to the consultation in the ACT and "take the government at its word that it will adopt a rigorous analysis of what is an ad directed to children", saying just because a child saw an ad didn't mean it was directed to it.

He said there was a 99.06 per cent compliance rate to self-regulation of food and drink advertising to children, including that when a television program was directed to children, the advertising had to provide healthy options.

Kambah mum Ngaire Harvey says it is impossible to avoid advertising for treat food but she and husband Chris have taken their own steps, not least putting in a vegetable garden to encourage their daughters Aisha, five, and Imogen, three, to eat more vegetables.

"There is advertising non-stop for junk food everywhere," Mrs Harvey said. "Aisha was given a voucher to a popular fast food outlet as a prize for participating in Auskick – very counter-intuitive to playing sport.

"We are lucky our girls eat a variety of fruit and vegetables.The best thing we did as a family was start a veggie patch – the kids love eating what we grow together. We do struggle getting them to avoid sugary treats such as icecream and lollies – we got into the habit of getting the girls icecreams on the way home from childcare and there are major tantrums if they don't get one now."

The ACT government's consultation on the marketing of food and beverages in Canberra is open until November 23. ACT Health said about 450 submissions had so far been received. Go to the consultation website via this link.

Megan Doherty

Megan Doherty is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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