Not only are children being exposed to an extreme amount of advertising, the portions advertised are often exaggerated.
There are nearly 3700 advertisements for junk food and sugary drinks located within 500 metres of Auckland primary schools, a University of Auckland study has shown.
Almost all of those advertisements marketed to children.
There are no government policies to protect Kiwi kids from unhealthy food and beverage marketing, and despite talks of a government-implemented sugar tax, nothing yet has been done to deter young New Zealanders from freely purchasing unhealthy food.
Researchers involved in the study said repeated exposure to junk food advertising could have long-term impacts on a child’s preferred food and drink habits, leading to possible health complications later in life.
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Research fellow Victoria Egli said the study was triggered by the massive amount of marketing the academics had anecdotally noticed around schools.
“We knew there was advertising everywhere, we just needed the numbers and data to create some action,” Egli said.
Researchers used satellite cameras to determine how many Auckland dairies were located within 500 metres of a primary school – 296 stores.
The majority of those stores’ 3693 junk food advertisements were determined to be marketing to children. Children who lived in neighbourhoods with a higher rate of deprivation were exposed to more ads than children in wealthier areas.
The study found 50.5 per cent of ads located near schools were for unhealthy food or beverages, and just 9.4 per cent were for healthy products.
“These findings highlight the need for policies to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy advertising in their school food environment,” the study said.
Researchers found there were “significantly more unhealthy food outlets” in the most deprived areas.
“Evidence suggests New Zealand children are exposed to high levels of unhealthy food outlets and advertising, and inequities exist with greater exposure in neighbourhoods with greater socio-economic deprivation,” the study said.
The United Nations has previously said all children should have access to a healthy food environment and governments should prohibit all unhealthy food and beverage advertisements children might be exposed to.
“Despite being one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, New Zealand has a long way to go to ensure all children live, play and go to school in healthy food environment,” the study said.
The study made multiple suggestions to the Food Industry Taskforce, which was established in 2018, and released a report full of recommendations to reduce factors contributing to obesity, one of them being setting a minimum distance between junk food advertisements and schools.
However, “no discussion occurred, and no decision has been confirmed”.
“We can’t wait for more research to be done,” Egli said.
“The evidence is clear – we need actual policy changes to protect children’s environment from being polluted [by advertising].”
The researchers believed the study “highlighted an opportunity for the Food Industry Taskforce to implement one of its own recommendations”.
The Ministry of Health said it recognised a high body mass index in childhood was an important issue that could track into adulthood, and Māori and Pacific children were disproportionately affected.
Upon asking if policy action had been considered on junk food advertising, the Ministry of Health referred Stuff to the Healthy Active Learning programme, which involves creating healthier food environments, enhancing physical activity and providing new health and physical education resources – but nothing about advertising.
Stuff also asked the Ministry of Education and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner about the possibility of a policy change, but they did not reply by deadline.