How junk food brands sneak positive news coverage

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Public health experts are urging the government to protect Australians from the influence of unhealthy food, alcohol, and advertising industries.

New research has revealed the sneaky ways these industries exploit consumers.

Two studies published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health highlight these tactics.

One study focused on how fast food chains use public relations (PR) to get positive news coverage for their unhealthy products.

The other looked at how these industries influenced a Queensland government proposal to limit advertising of unhealthy foods and alcohol on public property.

The first study found that three major fast food chains in Australia issued at least 52 press releases in a year. About 27% of these press releases promoted unhealthy food products, and another 27% were about corporate social responsibility. These releases resulted in very positive news coverage (93%) for fast food brands, leading to at least 86 news stories about unhealthy foods in 31 Australian media outlets.

The second study found that the unhealthy food, alcohol, and advertising industries used various tactics to oppose the Queensland government’s proposal to restrict unhealthy advertising. These tactics included direct meetings with the Health Minister and getting support from five charities. As a result, the proposal was changed and is still not adopted.

Professor Kathryn Backholer from Deakin University, an author on both studies, said these industries use sneaky tactics to protect their profits at the expense of Australians’ health. She noted that these companies ensure junk food marketing reaches every aspect of our lives, making it hard for Australians to make healthy food choices.

Dr. James Kite from the University of Sydney, co-author of the fast food PR study, explained that fast food chains use media releases to mask their marketing tactics. This method allows them to bypass the usual skepticism towards advertising.

Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, warned that journalists, not-for-profit organizations, and governments must protect themselves from industry exploitation. He highlighted that charities and media outlets, often underfunded, may be swayed by the incentives offered by these industries.

The Public Health Association of Australia is calling for comprehensive government action to address the impact of poor diet and obesity on chronic disease rates. Their key recommendations include funding the National Preventative Health Strategy, introducing a health levy on sugary drinks, mandating the Health Star Rating system, and restricting junk food advertising to children.

For the 2024 Queensland election, they are also urging the removal of unhealthy foods from state-owned properties like hospitals and school canteens and revisiting policies to eliminate unhealthy food and alcohol advertising from public assets.

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