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How cricket's big bash is making us big

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Why do governments continue to allow unhealthy food and alcohol to be advertised during sporting telecasts? Is it all about money? Lachlan Barker considers.

When I mention I am doing a story on obesity and unhealthy advertising in sport, I usually get one of two standard responses.

One is:

“Oh nothing will be done about unhealthy advertising of alcohol and fatty foods, because the government makes so much money from these products.”

The other, from people more aware of the problem is:

“The health costs of obesity far outweigh the income received by Government.”

Which response is right?

Firstly, income.

I contacted the Treasury Department and they were able to give me definitive figures for alcohol and tobacco, which are:

‘In 2013-14, excise and customs duty receipts for tobacco and alcohol were $8.5 billion and $5.2 billion respectively.’ 

A total of $13.7 billion.

I asked the media rep, Daniel, at Treasury about short order food and he told me that the treasury couldn’t provide a concise revenue figure, as this was such a complex industry. However, a market reporting website gives us a figure of $16 billion for fast food in 2014 in Australia.

What revenue comes from this industry is necessarily unclear, but we do at least know that GST is 10% and so just the GST on fast food is $1.6 billion.

Thus, the income from three unhealthy products well in the frame for causing obesity is $15.3 billion a year.

Okay, so what does obesity cost the health system?

Well the most recent study was of those 45-years-old and up, which returned a figure of $4 billion a year in direct health costs for the obese and overweight.

Researchers who did that report also said:

‘… likely similar hospitalisation patterns would be found in younger people.’

This indicates that if the direct health costs for younger people are the same ‒ four billion ‒ we get a figure of $8 billion in direct health costs a year.

But then, of course, there are also indirect costs, such days off work, loss of self-esteem and lower workplace productivity — all because of obesity.

A 2005 Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle study done by the National Health and Medical Research Council, which gives these alarming figures for the total cost then:

‘The total direct cost for overweight and obesity in 2005 was $21 billion ($6.5 billion for overweight and $14.5 billion for obesity). The same study estimated indirect costs of $35.6 billion per year, resulting in an overall total annual cost of $56.6 billion.’

By the way, the $21 billion down to $8 billion does not suggest the problem is getting better, but rather that the two studies had different parameters.

Anyway, the ratio of direct to indirect costs in the 2005 study is about two to three (21:35), so if we apply that to the current study, we get a direct spend on obesity of eight billion dollars, with an extrapolated indirect health cost of $12 billion, a total of twenty billion.

So we can now make the general conclusion that obesity costs us far more than the revenue received from the three products that fuel the obesity epidemic — alcohol, tobacco and quick service food.

So why am I writing this in the sport section? Well, as I’ve referred to before, unhealthy advertising during sport is clearly part of the problem.

Currently, there is a 20-over cricket (T20) series on in Australia between the host nation and South Africa. While I have not the slightest interest in this crassly commercial form of cricket, I did record five minutes of the broadcast to see what the advertising was like. Well the answer was: incessant, constant, torrential — you name the adjective, it applied.

The sponsor for Australian cricket in all forms is a takeaway chicken product, well-known for causing obesity.

During my brief recording, advertising for this product occurred 36 times and was on screen for an estimated 80% of the five minutes. The logo for this chicken product was spray painted on the grass, the stumps were covered in name of this product, the advertising hoardings had it, it was prominently displayed on the Australian players’ uniforms — it was bloody everywhere.

The broadcast time for twenty over games is three hours, so my figures indicate that this chicken product will be seen more than a thousand times during a T20 match, clearly an excessive amount. This sort of brutal advertising is clearly exacerbating the obesity epidemic.

What’s more, the regulations regarding advertising state that ‘non-program matter’, aka ads, can only be on the screen for 13 minutes an hour between 6pm and midnight. So my above figures of about 80% of the time shows that the regulations governing sport broadcasting in this country are being badly flouted, with advertising on the screen during T20 cricket matches onscreen for closer to 50 minutes an hour.

Moreover, T20 cricket is watched by more young Australian cricketers than any other form of the game and the first hour is in children’s viewing times; as such it is a real threat to the health of young people.

Senior lecturer in public health at the University of Wollongong, Dr Bridget Kelly, said her studies have shown children have very high retention rates when it comes to sport sponsorship. When children see the elite sport sponsored by a product, says Dr Kelly, they often want to ‘repay’ that sponsorship by buying the sponsor’s product — in this case, takeaway chicken.

She then added, paradoxically, that sport is often, on balance, actually unhealthy for children in Australia at this time. Why is that? Well, due to the reward nature of sport, children will play for an hour, then go for their reward at the local takeaway food outlet. Then, having played sport, the children ‒ with their parents sanctioning it ‒ are allowed to spend hours in front of screens, computer and TV.

This trend is reflected, added Dr Kelly, in adults, with alcohol being the compensation.

The adult, particularly male, will play sport, then ‘reward’ the sponsor by drinking some of their product. Again, if enough alcohol is drunk, this will have an unhealthy effect on the adult sportsperson.

So, you might ask, why even cover sport, with all its bad advertising?

In response, I would say sport can be resurrected and can be a healthy thing again. Dr Kelly did direct me to Healthway in Western Australia, where a state government department is having success in removing unhealthy sponsorship from sport. It can be done.

If you wish to join the hunt for healthy sport a good place to start is Cricket Australia: http://www.cricketaustralia.com.au/about/contact

Send a message asking for a severe reduction, or preferably the removal of, unhealthy advertising during cricket broadcasts.

Likewise, the federal health minister is Peter Dutton; you can email him here: Peter.Dutton.MP@aph.gov.au

As for the comment ‘nothing will be done as the government makes so much money from these products’, well I think that a thousand appearances in three hours of an unhealthy food on our screens shows all too clearly that if the Federal Government is doing anything, it isn’t much.

Lachlan Barker blogs at cyclonecharlie88.blogspot.com.au. You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie8.

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