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Thursday, 18 June 2009
Page: 3755

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (4:20 PM) —in reply—I thank the contributors to the debate on the Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising (Broadcasting Amendment) Bill 2008, which not only is an important bill but also is quite urgent in view of the ever-worsening statistics about obesity in Australia, which has a quarter of adults obese now and the speculation in medical circles that we may actually see a reduction in the longevity of the Australian population within the next decade or two starting to occur due to the increase in obesity in the community.

The evidence continues to grow that junk food advertising on television materially increases the chances of children becoming obese and that once that happens it is very difficult to reverse it. I point the Senate’s attention to the European Journal of Public Health Advance Access, published on 14 April this year. The article ‘By how much would limiting TV food advertising reduce childhood obesity?’ is by four researchers, J. Lennert Veerman, Eduard F. Van Beeck, Jan J. Barendregt and Johan P. Mackenbach of the Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Queensland. In summary, it says:

A complete ban on food advertising on TV may reduce the prevalence of obesity among US children by about 2.5 percentage points. Based on expert opinion, this could be as much as 6.5 percentage points. In other words, given a baseline prevalence of about 17%, possibly as many as one in seven—or even one in three—obese children would not have been obese in the absence of food advertising on TV. Comparable numbers of overweight children might have had a normal weight.

This is the latest article that I could find, and I thank my staff—not the least Prue Cameron—for the hard work that has been put into backing the necessity for this legislation and for the increasing evidence I have been able to bring before the Senate as to why we should be acting on this piece of legislation.

I hear what both the government and the opposition are saying about parental guidance being important, and it does echo to me a debate that Senator Siewert and I have had in the past in this place with regard to the terrible scourge of petrol sniffing in Central Australia, where a former minister for health, Mr Tony Abbott, said that that was a matter for parental guidance. However, government intervention there has saved hundreds of children from brain damage and potential lifelong physical and mental damage as a result of that scourge. It is not different to say that we have increasing obesity in the whole of the Australian community and it does require government control on those who are pushing junk food onto children.

What are government and opposition members saying—that children should not be allowed to watch commercial TV; that it is irresponsible of parents to allow that to happen? Or are they saying that children should have parents sitting with them during all advertising times, when they see food advertisements on television, so that they can be dissuaded from believing what they see on TV? Or are government and opposition members saying that the psychologists are wrong when they tell us that children up to the age of 12 cannot discern between the factual material they may see on television and advertising? Or have government and opposition members not read about the employment by the big food manufacturers of banks of psychologists to help them in their advertising presentation to vulnerable children who do not know the difference, using established psychological techniques to persuade children to buy junk food from advertising and, indeed, to employ the pester factor—that is, to pester their parents to buy junk food when they are at the supermarket or when they are out in the area of restaurants?

It is not naivety; it is very close to irresponsible that we are not seeing legislative action backed by the big parties on this matter—and here is the opportunity. As with the moves towards banning tobacco advertising, which saved the public health system billions of dollars and saved massive social problems and heartache—because it saved thousands of Australians from lung cancer, heart disease, stomach cancer, circulatory disease and a whole range of other factors that shortened lives in this country, through government action—can senators not see that acting to prevent the rapidly increasing toll of obesity in this country is a responsibility that is on our shoulders, and an urgent one at that?

Nobody has claimed in this debate—and nor will I—that ending junk food advertising pushed to children is going to solve the problem, because it will not. There are a range of other factors that have to be dealt with, including, for example, ensuring that not just children but also adults get adequate exercise and that there is public education on what is healthy food. This legislation from the Greens gives the minister the ability to enable good food to be advertised in children’s TV viewing hours. It therefore enables the minister of the day to be able to get expert advice on that matter. In other words, it gives the minister the ability to see whether food is in fact not just neutral or is not unhealthy but is healthy when it is being pushed in children’s TV viewing hours.

Moreover, as a result of listening to the increasing evidence on the impact on children’s TV viewing hours, I have with me amendments that I would move in the committee of the whole were we to get the government and/or the opposition to support this legislation which would increase the restriction on junk food advertising to 9.30 at night. It would be from 6 am to 9.30 at night in period C or period P, and variously extending the hours, because it has been found that the greatest impact that the junk food advertiser is having on children is targeting them before 9.30 at night—in other words, very often when they are watching with their parents.

It is not fatuous, but it is a flawed argument for both the big parties to be saying this is a parental responsibility. The fact is that it is manifestly not working. We have the same argument here that we had with petrol sniffing: that responsible parents will stop their children from getting into trouble that way. But it is a reality that we have a range of parental guidance in our community and that children who do not have the benefit of the best of caring from their parents may be the most vulnerable to the junk food advertisers. I am aware of the enormous power of the food manufacturers in this country, and they have it over the body politic. They talk about self-regulation. Every time this issue comes up, on comes the issue of self-regulation. It is not working and it has not worked and it is our responsibility to ensure that we do make it work.

It is an absolute failure of the Rudd government and the Minister for Health and Ageing that not only is this legislation being opposed by the Labor government but there is no substitute for it. And there is no apparent intention to substitute it. The health minister has been apparently struck with inanition on this issue and I have heard no argument as to why that is the case. This is our responsibility. This is a serious matter. The Greens here are acting on a public health matter of high priority to the experts in this country and around the world, and the government is failing to act in a similarly responsible way. It is very, very hard to understand why the government is not taking action on this unless you factor in the sheer power of the food manufacturers in the big end of town who always, of course, come in with the argument of parental responsibility and self-regulation.

I have here a letter from Choice, the remarkably effective consumer advocacy voice in Australia. This is addressed to Senator Milne but it has come, I presume, to all of us. It is entitled: ‘Re: Junk food advertising to children: who is the biggest loser?’ Mr Gordon Renouf, the Director of Policy and Campaigns says this:

I am writing to you to urge you to support tougher Australian regulations and international recommendations that will protect children from the unhealthy influence of junk food marketing. I am also pleased to provide you with Choice’s latest report on junk food marketing, entitled Food advertising to children: who is the biggest loser? which demonstrates the need for better restrictions on junk food advertising on TV. Choice assessed all the food and drinks advertised between 6 am and 9 pm during a one week period using the nutrient profiling scoring criteria developed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) for regulating health claims on food labels. The FSANZ criteria are based on the nutrient profiling system first developed by the UK Food Standards Agency to regulate junk food advertising to children.

Choice goes on to say this:

It found that 54 per cent of all food advertisements promoted unhealthy foods.

It is talking about advertisements on television. It goes on:

Most junk food ads were aired between 6 pm and 9 pm when there are no government restrictions but a larger number of children watching. Our research clearly demonstrates current advertising restrictions that apply during so-called children’s viewing periods are out of touch with children’s real TV viewing habits and do little to minimise their exposure to advertisements for unhealthy foods. Current voluntary industry efforts fail to protect children from the glut of junk food ads that appear during the programs that are most popular with children. Choice wants UK-style restrictions to be introduced in Australia based on the nutrient profiling scoring criteria developed by FSANZ.

Parents also want government action. 88 per cent of parents in our 2008 Newspoll survey said that junk food marketing undermined parents’ efforts to encourage children to eat healthy foods. 82 per cent were in favour of increasing government regulation of the way unhealthy food is marketed to children. International research shows that food advertising influences children’s food preferences and diets. The World Health Organisation recommends restrictions on food marketing to children as part of a global strategy to prevent diet related diseases and is currently developing recommendations on the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. Children in Australia and across the globe have a right to be protected from marketing that in the long term has a detrimental impact on their health. Choice supports Consumers International, its recommendations for an international code on marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children and calls on the Australian government to do the same.

Then it cites:

for more information about the proposed code and says:

Restricting junk food marketing to children is just one action required to address rising rates of overweight and obesity in children. This has already been highlighted by the Commonwealth government’s own National Preventative Health Taskforce. We are hopeful that food marketing restrictions will form part of the final National Preventative Health Strategy that will soon be presented to government. Choice urges you to support the development of Australian regulations including the strengthening of children’s television standards and WHO recommendations that protect children under 16 from the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar and salt in broadcast media between 6 am and 9 pm and non-broadcast media, including on-pack promotions and the use of movie tie-ins, toys, characters and celebrities to appeal to children.

The reality here is that we are unlikely to get legislation like the Greens have brought forward in this period of government, and that is not acceptable. The government will be failing the Australian populace in this matter if it does not support this move. We are told, ‘Wait on’. That is the result of the pressure of the big food advertisers. It is the ‘wait on’ factor that always has bedevilled trying to deal adequately with the seriousness of cigarette advertising and pushing by the big tobacco companies. We have here a real epidemic and an increasing impact which costs the public purse billions of dollars and a lot of heartache for those people caught up with it in increasing obesity and the number and percentage of Australians who are overweight.

This legislation should be supported. I submit there has been no cogent argument except an attempt to delay and to substitute inaction on behalf of the government and the opposition for the action that the Greens want to see taken in the interests of the primary health care, and this is preventative health care, of Australians. Finally, this will be looked back on in the future with a great deal of incredulity by people researching the matter. How can we allow millions of children every day to be exposed to junk food purveyors pushing food at these children which injures their health? How is it that we allow these big corporations their manipulative advertising based on millions of dollars spent on psychological research not in the interests of the health of children but to increase profit lines against the interests of the health of children. This is the public domain. We are here to look after the public interest. This bill is all about the public interest and it should be supported.

Question put:

That this be now read a second time.

A division having been called and the bells being rung—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Hanson-Young, you will have to take the child outside for a division. We cannot allow children to be in here for a division.

Senator Bob Brown —I request that you provide a childminder for the division so that Senator Hanson-Young has somebody to provide the care that you insist she gets. Senator Hanson-Young, I want you to stay here.

The PRESIDENT —I think the action is being taken. Someone is going to mind the child.

Senator Bob Brown —I object. President, there is no such rule as the one you have just employed. Although it is in the form of a request, I ask you to come back to this chamber on this ruling that I object to, and object to in the strongest terms.