COMMENT:

Protecting our kids from harm is a basic instinct for parents.

To that end, we have lots of regulation in place: We wear seatbelts, fence pools and don't sell alcohol or cigarettes to kids. We have restrictions on movies and games with violent or disturbing content.

But there's a gap in that protection, and a group of organisations interested in public health reckon we need to address it. Healthy Auckland Together, a coalition of 26 groups, is the latest group to call for controls on the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids.

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This is something — along with rules on healthy food in schools, a tax on sugary drinks and better nutrition education — that health experts have been calling for for years in order to curb the shocking rise in childhood obesity.

HAT has commissioned talented comic artist Toby Morris to lay out the case for controls on junk food advertising to kids with a comic (find it at http://www.healthyaucklandtogether.org.nz/resources/comic/).

In it, Morris points out that young kids see ads as entertainment. It's not until they're about 8 that kids begin to understand what advertising is for and between 10 and 12 they understand they're being sold something but are unlikely to understand the subtlety of the sales pitch.

He also counters the argument that surely it's up to parents to feed their kids healthy food, suggesting that's an uphill battle when we are surrounded by pervasive marketing messages both in and outside the home.

Our kids are more than twice as likely to be exposed to marketing for unhealthy food than they are to messages about healthy food.

And the marketing is pervasive. Auckland University research found kids are exposed to 8 ads per hour for unhealthy foods during children's peak TV viewing times, and nearly three quarters of less healthy breakfast cereals for children used promotional characters on the packaging to appeal to kids.

There's the online environment, where games are regularly used in marketing as a way of attracting kids. And the Kids'Cam study revealed everyday physical environments are saturated with advertising for unhealthy food and drinks, ranging from signage at sports fields to in-store promotions to clothing.

Right now, there's no regulation around what can and can't be marketed to kids. The advertising industry's self-regulating body, the Advertising Standards Authority, has various codes in place, including one on advertising to children.

But this system relies on people making complaints, and there are no real penalties if companies are found to be in breach. HAT says that's not good enough, and regulation is needed.

I don't think food marketers set out with the intention of harming children. They are people, after all. But while they can, there will always be some marketers who take advantage of the opportunities they currently have to hook our most vulnerable consumers.

Niki Bezzant is editor at large for Healthy Food Guide www.healthyfood.co.nz