Victoria is fighting for tighter food regulations to protect children from the insidious effects of ultra-processed, sugar-laden foods that are all around them at school, shops and even at home. But will this new wave lead to lasting change? Here’s why, despite the vice grip sugar has on the nation – and the globe, for that matter – we’re cautiously optimistic.
In a promising move towards a healthier future, Victorian politicians, organisations and advocates are coming together to give a fresh push for regulations aimed at promoting healthier food regulations for children; who are the most vulnerable when it comes to sugar addiction and poor dietary habits. With a focus on prevention, early intervention, community engagement and self-management, this initiative is aligned with the state's broader vision for better health.
The Victorian Greens Party is one of the groups fighting for urgent change, with population health spokesperson and medical doctor Tim Read highlighting how dangerous the country’s affair with ultra-processed foods is having, and the cost for our kids.
"Unhealthy diets set children up for lifelong health issues, including preventable cancers, type 2 diabetes, obesity and dental decay,” Dr Read says. “If we’re genuinely committed to reducing hospital waiting lists, it’s time we stopped corporations from actively promoting disease-causing products.”
But will our government be willing to sever its highly profitable ties with junk food companies and their advertising campaigns? Let’s find out – first, we’ll take a look into what advocates and groups are trying to implement, along with how long it could take – and, not to be the bearer of bad news, but it may take a while. But, better late than never, right?
Victoria's Vision for Better Health
The Health 2040: Advancing Health, Access, and Care initiative centres around maximising the health and wellbeing of all Victorians is one of the major elements of Victoria’s proposed plan to whip the country into shape by 2040. Its key pillars include prevention, early intervention, community engagement and empowering people to manage their own health. One critical element of this vision is to create a state free from the avoidable burden of disease that comes with high sugar intakes and inadequate whole food consumption, ensuring that all Victorians can enjoy the highest standards of health and wellbeing. The plan focuses on addressing the impact of climate change on health and promoting healthy eating and active living. It all starts with children – research shows that the habits we make in childhood can follow us all throughout our lives, and if we started off eating the ultra-processed stuff, chances are we’ll find it harder to quit later. More alarming findings show that childhood junk food consumption can lead to maladaptive behaviours around food, including the use of these sugary snacks to self-sooth during stressful times – and when these habits are formed in childhood, they’re exceedingly more difficult to break down the track. The research shows that these children are more likely to go on to use food as an emotional crutch after events like divorces, grief and general stress.
The Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures program by the Victorian Government is a comprehensive five-year plan that emphasises creating supportive environments for children and young people to lead healthier lives. This initiative prioritises healthy eating, active living, and mental wellbeing – and this means schools, childcare centres and food regulatory bodies all have to be on board.
Groups like Vic Kids Eat Well are actively working towards reducing junk food advertising and increasing access to healthy food options for children. They have laid out four key goals for schools, childcare centres, and other children's organisations:
- Refresh the Fridge: Encourage the replacement of sugary drinks with water, taking a step towards promoting better hydration.
- Switch up the Snacks: Replace sugary sweets with delicious and healthy snacks that provide children with the nourishment they need.
- Change up the Menu: Prioritise the inclusion of fruits and vegetables in children's diets to offer balanced nutrition.
- Put the 'Fun' into Fundraising and Marketing: Infuse health appeal into meal deals and fundraising events such as walkathons or readathons.
This new push for regulatory changes comes in light of a nationwide campaign earlier in the year to combat junk food advertising, on which actually made it to parliament, though it’s yet to be passed – the proposed legislation, known as the Healthy Kids Advertising Bill, would drastically reduce the reach of junk food ads. This is especially pertinent as research proves kids are more vulnerable to this form of marketing – any parents reading this will know exactly what we mean. With around 25% of children aged 5-14 overweight or obese, something needs to change, from a shift towards whole foods to healthier foods at the school canteen, more affordable groceries and a ban on dangerous advertising targeting children. Here’s what the legislation proposed:
- Junk food ads to be banned between 6am and 9.30pm.
- Junk food marketing to be banned from social media.
- Fines to be given to broadcasters, food companies and other service providers who breach these rules.
MP Dr Sophie Scamps, one of the politicians fronting the bill, shared her alarm at the rates of obesity among young people, along with the dangers of letting junk food advertising go unchecked.
“With Australians being bombarded with unhealthy food ads all day, every day, is it any wonder we are facing an epidemic of obesity in this country?’ Sophie told the Australian parliament. “This Parliament needs to step up to support parents to help their children.”
These proposed changes have a major backing, particularly in Victoria with 6000 people having signed up to support the Cancer Council in a bid to take down junk food advertising and put an end to the 25 ads children are exposed to every day and the ads that have overtaken public transport vehicles and stations, with a whopping 60% of ads dedicated to junk food. Yikes. And who do we know take transport nearly every day on their way to school? Children, of course – and it’s no coincidence, marketing companies are intentionally targeting children in the name of profit. On average, 5 to 8-year-old Aussie children consume nearly 830 junk food ads every year on TV alone, with one study finding half of the advertising slots during children’s TV shows to be dedicated to junk food marketing. Advertising is specifically targeting children as though they have the capacity to buy the products themselves. But it’s not because they think these kids are rolling in cash, they just understand the magic of “pester power”. Is it any wonder that so many kids and adults are becoming overweight and obese when these ads are everywhere and supermarkets are consistently placing these foods front and centre in their stores? A national survey found that children exposed to these ads were two times as likely to seek out those foods and ask their parents for those products, along with more likely to have a higher intake of junk food. This leaves people at a higher risk for obesity, heart disease and cancer and sets children up with unhealthy, addictive eating habits.
Will this growing traction lead to lasting change? Well, that remains to be seen – after all, we’re still waiting on the bill to be implemented. But, with the determination of parents, health organisations and politicians, it iS possible, and as we start to see the worsening effects of sugar addiction and junk food consumption, we will see less resistance to these campaigns.
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