Friday, June 18, 2004

Obesity hitting prime time

Obesity is hitting the prime time, which means that it's time for politicians to propose modestly paternalistic measures against it while vested interests splurge on a propoganda offensive against the "Nanny State."

Mark Latham's proposal to ban junk food advertising during children's TV programs is a reasonable one. Junk food vendors spend millions marketing their products every year. They wouldn't do this unless it payed off. Yes, there are those who say it is paternalistic, a violation of the divinely ordained workings of the free market. But there's a level of hypocrisy here.

John Howard may claim that "the question of what children eat is ultimately the responsibility of parents", but not so long ago his party was responsible for slapping tighter restrictions on sex and violence on TV. The familiar argument that parents should be responsible for what their children watch was tried, only to be rejected by communications minister Alston.

So keeping kids from junk food is the responsibility of parents. Violent video games, TV, and booze, all of which are banned from being promoted during children's time, isn't. Why the inconsistency?

Actually, Alston was right. Some things are harmful to kids, and the government is entitled to step in. A ban on the marketing of junk food to kids is paternalistic, but only modestly so. It interferes with no one's rights to buy any food they want, only with an alledged right to promote junk food to kids. With 30 percent of children overweight or obese, it's time to do something. Would this measure actually be successful? Well, it's worth a try.

Perhaps Howard is simply alert to favorable media coverage during the coming election. But surely commercial TV would never stoop so low as to let their fiduciary interests influence the impartiality of their current affairs coverage?

Well, last night Ten news decided to quote their own chief executive, John McApline, leading the propoganda offensive against the suggestion. It would "compromise the ability of broadcasters to continue to provide quality children's programming", which is certainly a novel way of describing endless reruns of Pokemon and Dragonball Z. Future highly impartial stories on the topic are expected.

I expect quality children's programming will survive this. It is true that children's TV on commercial stations is almost obscenely dependent on junk food advertising. But, of course, there's subscription TV. Secondly, there's the beloved ABC. Thirdly, food marketers can always move to selling healthier options, just as the BBC has committed to licensing characters like the Teletubbies to promote healthier snacks in the future.

Either that, or they'll just nab children during the family hour instead. Every regulation, alas, has a workaround.