Children are still being exposed to the same number of junk food ads on TV, despite the fast food industry's introduction of new rules about marketing products to children.
A review of TV ads has found the total number of fast food ads increased after the industry's voluntary marketing code was introduced in August 2009, with no change in those for junk food.
The findings, published online by the Medical Journal of Australia, have sparked fresh calls for the Government to play a greater role in regulating fast food advertising.
The code, which allowed the industry to self-regulate fast food TV ads and set new nutrition standards for foods aimed at under 14s, was signed by seven chains including McDonald's, Pizza Hut and KFC.
Researchers from the University of Sydney and Cancer Council NSW analysed all TV ads broadcast in Sydney over four days before (May 2009) and after (April 2010) the code came into effect.
They found the mean frequency of total fast food ads, including those for healthy and unhealthy meals, rose to 1.5 an hour from 1.1.
Ads for healthier alternative fast foods, such as meals including fruit or salads, also rose to 0.3 an hour from zero.
However, ads for junk food stayed the same at 1.0 an hour overall and 1.3 during peak viewing times for children.
"Children's exposure to unhealthy fast-food advertising has not changed following the introduction of self-regulation, and some fast foods advertised for children's consumption contain excessive energy," the researchers wrote.
"The limited impact of self-regulation suggests that governments should define the policy framework for regulating fast-food advertising to children."
The code, the Australian Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children (QSRI), specifies that fast-food companies should "ensure that only food and beverages that represent healthier choices are promoted directly to children".
The researchers discovered that companies which did not sign up to the code had actually reduced their rate of junk food ads by 84 per cent.
This was much higher than the 17 per cent fall recorded by those taking part in the move to self-regulation.
The researchers said the limited impact of the QSRI code was partly because it applied nutrient criteria on sugar, salt and fat levels only to children's meals, which made up just a small segment of all fast food ads.
Ads for family meals, despite being aimed at children, were not subject to the same nutrition standards.
Most family meals exceeded 30 per cent of children's daily calorie requirements, the researchers said."Arguably, a responsible marketing approach would apply restrictions to a wider range of foods that children actually consume (not just designated children's meals), and apply to all advertisements that children are likely to be exposed to, and not just those deemed by industry to be directed to children," they wrote.
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