Australia’s Queensland government has announced it will ban outdoor advertising for junk food at government-owned sites as part of an effort to curb an obesity crisis.

The restriction represents an important shift in how unhealthy food permeates consumer culture.

Junk food advertising ban

The marketing restrictions in Queensland will affect more than 2,000 outdoor advertising spaces, including billboards, bus stops and train stations.

London implemented similar restrictions earlier this year when junk food advertising was banned on the entire Transport for London network. The Queensland bans will be determined based on the salt, sugar and fat content of the food or drinks being promoted.

Accordingly, traditional “junk food” brands such as McDonald’s cannot be prohibited from marketing their healthier options.

Critics of junk food advertising bans dispute the effectiveness of such efforts, particularly when other forms of advertising – notably television and social media – are not affected. Others still argue that governments should allow consumers to make their own choices and focus instead on education initiatives that promote healthy diets.

While the advertising ban as a singular measure is unlikely to promote positive dietary changes, it represents a refusal on the part of the government to explicitly encourage consumption of foods that are linked to the exacerbating childhood obesity problem in Australia.

While childhood obesity is the result of a range of factors, including parental influence and the relative affordability of unhealthy food, marketing certainly plays a role – after all, companies do not spend billions of dollars on advertising in the mere hope or assumption that it can influence individual behaviour.

For the time being, manufacturers of “unhealthy food” need not feel as though they are being muzzled or obstructed from doing business. They should, however, be aware of the incremental drivers of change that will impact how and to what extent junk food and fast food companies may be stigmatised in the years to come.