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It's about junk food

Astika Raj
Friday, February 15, 2013

FIJI is in the grip of an NCD (non-communicable disease) epidemic; diabetes, heart disease, stroke. Unfortunately the problems are starting young with studies here showing children are increasingly becoming overweight, unfit and eating unhealthy diets. Their diets are high in processed foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fruits and vegetables.

Why are our children eating unhealthy diets? There are many factors involved, such as food prices, availability and knowledge. We all know that sometimes the healthier choice is harder to find.

But also, one significant factor is their exposure to food marketing. It is now widely accepted they need protection from exposure to excess advertising, particularly regarding foods and drinks which are less healthy (sometimes termed junk foods), as this encourages their excess consumption.

Recommendations from the World Health Organisation, Consumers International and other key global bodies are that efforts be made to limit how much children are exposed to promotion and advertising of these less healthy foods and drinks.

Is there a problem with advertising of these less healthy foods here in Fiji?

Studies were conducted in 2010 and 2012 to indicate the extent of advertising of "junk foods" .

The 2010 study looked at television advertising, knowledge and behaviour of a small group of schoolchildren and street advertising around schools and in the main area of Suva. The study found high levels of advertising of "junk" foods and drinks on streets, particularly around schools.

The survey of around 200 primary and secondary schoolchildren in Suva revealed children found adverts interesting and many had either asked their parents to purchase a product they had seen advertised or bought it themselves. Some were confused about healthier drinks and foods as they had misunderstood or seen misleading adverts.

Almost all watched television every day, particularly secondary students who tended to watch much more. The free-to-air channels were the most watched, compared to DVDs and satellite television.

Since the study, a new TV channel started here, FBC TV. A study of this last year found the levels of advertising on FBC's had the lowest proportion of the "junk" advertising compared to the other channels (in 2010); however, still almost two thirds of food and drink adverts were for "junk" foods and drinks. FBC was also unusual in that, in the programming intended specifically for young children, there was no advertising content at all.

It is unknown if this is intentional, to protect children, or for some other reason. It, nonetheless, is very positive.

The study in 2010 found half of primary schoolchildren and eight out of 10 secondary school students reported hearing food and drink advertising on the radio. To look at this more, a study was carried out in 2012 on radio advertising in Fiji.

Three prominent radio stations here were included in the study; FM 96, Radio Navtarang and Bula FM. While food and drink advertisements were only a small portion of the total advertisements around 9-15per cent there were more adverts overall for unhealthy food and drink than for healthy ones. On FM96 and Bula FM, six out of 10 food advertisements were for unhealthy food and drinks. However, Radio Navtarang had more healthy food and drinks adverts, with only three out of 10 food adverts on unhealthy food. Generally, more food advertisements were on during the weekday days rather on the weekend days.

A number of food companies or products sponsored specific shows or programs on the radio stations and were therefore advertised heavily.

Overall the studies indicate children's' ability to distinguish between advertising and fact can be poor; they are particularly vulnerable to the influence of advertising messages which involve cartoons or other children on television and elsewhere. The situation of "junk food" advertisement and sponsorship in Fiji is a problem, particularly during hours when children are likely to be watching and in areas around schools. The study strongly supports the need for efforts to protect children and adolescents from "junk food" advertising.

* Astika Raj is the research officer of C-POND (Pacific Research Centre for the Prevention of Obesity and Non-communicable Diseases), Research Unit, Fiji School of Medicine, CMNHS, FNU. With contribution by: Dr Wendy Snowdon (co-ordinator) of C-POND and Adi Miriama Drauna, final-year public health student of CMNHS, FNU.