Those who gain the most should carry some of the weight

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I may be in my mid-thirties, but I clearly remember my first visit to McDonalds. I had seen countless ads and I nagged my parents until one day, exasperated, they took my brother and me along. We left behind the Greek food they had prepared and headed off on our big adventure.

I don't recall what I ordered, but I do remember my general level of disappointment. Ronald wasn't there, nor was the Hamburgler or any other members of the McDonalds' universe the ads had promised me. When my brother asked a staff member about Ronald and his crew, we were told me that though we had missed them, they were never far away. This promise combined with the free giveaway toys and the belief that the Hamburgler would pilfer all the burgers unless we hurried into McDonalds, kept me going back.

Advertising to children

There is no doubt that marketing aimed at children is big business. In recent years, the food and beverage industry in the US, and its Australian counterpart have viewed children and young people as a major market force. Intense and ongoing advertising is directed towards this ‘target' market.

In the US, corporations spend about US$20 billion per year on advertising to children and researching how to do it better. There are no comparable figures in Australia, but it is known that Australians have one of the highest rates of advertising to children in the world. It is estimated that Australian children directly control $800 million dollars per year through pocket money and gifts. It is also estimated that children are influential in up to 70 per cent of purchases in the family home through ‘nagging' their parents into making certain purchases.

Amongst the many impacts of advertising to young people, studies confirm that advertising to children has major effects on their eating habits. Consequently, junk food ads are seen as a major contributor to the fact that one in four children are now either obese or overweight.

The NSW Department of Health has estimated that children are exposed to 11 ads a day promoting lollies, soft drinks and fast food. These figures are challenged by the commercial TV industry, which claims that the true figure only about half this. Either statistic is a concern given that research indicates that children under the age of eight or nine cannot distinguish reality from fantasy.

Lessons learnt

Recently the Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, responded to demands for greater controls over junk food advertising, by claiming that what children ate was ultimately a parent's responsibility. The underlying assumption seems to be that advertising has only minimum impact on both children and parents. However, common sense tells us that so much money would not be spent on advertising if it was not (very) effective.

It is estimated that obesity adds about $1 billion dollars a year to the nation's health bill. The problem with fast food advertising is that the industry pockets the financial gains based on unhealthy eating practices, but bears no responsibility for the consequences. The industry is badly in need of regulation, as the current voluntary code seems to limit only the most extreme excesses.

There is no quick fix for solving the obesity epidemic, but whatever is decided, the industry which is in large part responsible should bear some of the costs. There are no simple solutions, but a suite of measures including stricter government regulations and prohibiting vending machines in schools should be considered.

In addition, I would propose a 0.1 percent tax levied on advertising to children. This could begin by focusing on two things that seem to be contributing most to the obesity crisis — junk food and home entertainment (think X-Box). This could be a ‘sliding tax', with the amount taxed increasing as does a corporations' advertising budget. This tax could be expanded into other industries that advertise to children after a time period.

Though figures on advertising to children are difficult to find, any money raised would be a welcome addition to the federal government's paltry $15 million dollar ‘Active After School Initiative'. The money raised could also be directed towards funding dieticians for schools across the Commonwealth. Education in this area would have life-long benefits.

Though taxes aren't fashionable these days, a tax on advertising would connect the private benefits of advertising to children with the public costs often carried by broader society. This would see those benefiting most from the obesity epidemic carrying some of the weight.

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