A letter to the NZMJ by the chief executive of the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council1 states that our article2 on protecting New Zealand children against unhealthy food marketing creates the false impression that self-regulation has failed in New Zealand. It also mentions that our article on this issue is outdated.
First, what does “success of self-regulation” actually mean? From a public health perspective it does not mean compliance with a voluntary code that is very nonspecific (eg, in terms of the exact foods that cannot be marketed to children), compliance with a code not independently assessed, or the lack of complaints made by the public. Instead, “success of self-regulation” should mean that exposure of children, defined as individuals aged 18 years or younger, to the marketing of unhealthy foods, as determined by independent criteria, through all media, decreases significantly over time. A recent systematic review of the literature has shown that self-regulation by industry has not worked anywhere to reduce exposure of children to unhealthy food marketing.3 This concern is also clearly highlighted in the draft final report of the World Health Organization Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity published last week.4 While we acknowledge that we do not have a complete picture at the moment to comprehensively assess food marketing through all media over time in New Zealand, the peer reviewed studies in our article,2 whether recent or older, all show that food advertisements are predominantly for unhealthy foods, and that the extent of unhealthy food marketing to children through TV has not decreased over time (1999–2009).5-7 In addition, while the existing voluntary code covers the time slots 0600–0950 and 1400–1700, recent audience measurement data obtained from Nielsen (2015) show that the percentage of 5–13 year olds watching the major free-to-air channels (TV1, 2 and 3) is higher during the time slots not covered by industry self-regulation.
In our view, one of the many responses required is to revise the current voluntary code to incorporate clear criteria on the exact foods that cannot be marketed to children at any time through any medium. The nutrient profile model recently developed by the World Health Organization to restrict unhealthy food marketing to children in the European region is an excellent practical guidance for this.8 While the author criticising our article1 correctly points out that 67% of the most prominent packaged and soft drink companies in New Zealand do have a policy to restrict food marketing to children on their websites, 0% of those currently use independent nutrient profiling criteria. In addition, only 20% of fast food companies have such a policy mentioned on their website.9 Consequently, transparency, specificity, comprehensiveness and strength of policies to restrict junk food marketing to children by New Zealand companies could be substantially improved.
There is high-level agreement at the international level4,10 and consensus among national public health experts11,12 that comprehensive regulations to restrict junk food marketing to children are a top priority to reduce childhood obesity. In addition, 73% of the New Zealand public is supportive of tougher restrictions to reduce junk food marketing to kids.13 However, in order to move beyond the current inertia due to the ongoing divide between advocates for industry self-regulation and those advocating for comprehensive government regulations to restrict unhealthy food marketing to children, let’s start exploring the feasibility and effectiveness of a quasi-regulatory approach, as proposed and explained in our viewpoint.2 For such an approach to have a chance to work, the Government should set clear parameters, and enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. This will also be an excellent opportunity for the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council and affiliated companies to clearly demonstrate their commitments to protecting children against unhealthy food marketing in New Zealand.