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Public health researchers from the University of Otago say up to a third of sports sponsorships by food and drink companies should be replaced in the way tobacco was.
The authors reviewed the websites of 308 New Zealand sports organisations covering 58 sports to identify sponsors and conducted 18 interviews with key administrators. A quarter of websites had links to sponsors.
Sponsors were classified as healthy or unhealthy using the New Zealand Food and Beverage Classification System nutrient criteria for energy, fat, salt and fibre levels. The study found that a third of food/beverage companies sponsoring sport could be classified as unhealthy.
“Such sponsorship is likely to promote consumption of junk food and dilutes government recommendations promoting healthy eating”, says Associate Professor Louise Signal of Otago’s health promotion and policy research unit.
“McDonald's and Coke are the greatest product sponsors, just like at the London Olympics,” she notes. “And one of our most popular sports, rugby, has the unhealthiest sponsorship by far with 23% of brands and logos linked to unhealthy food. In contrast, netball has only 1% linked to unhealthy food.”
Dr Signal says this is of considerable concern given the increase of obesity in children. Currently, 11% of children aged 5-14 are obese, up from 8% in 2006/7, and at least 20% are overweight.
The university announcement says consumption of junk food is a significant contributor to this problem and that obesity is associated with a range of health problems, including childhood diabetes and heart disease, diabetes and cancer in later life.
“Our children deserve to be protected from the pressure to eat junk food while enjoying healthy outdoor activity, and parents need to be supported against pester advertising in their efforts to promote healthy eating to their children,” Dr Signal says.
The study also found that some sponsors continued to target children with additional marketing activities. This is also developed through access to regional clubs and youth players providing them with product samples, merchandise and vouchers for purchasing more product.
“Counting logos does not capture the extent of marketing in sports and probably underestimates the extent of sponsorship,” the researchers say.
“Tactics included the use of Player of the Day certificates for budding All White football players as young as four, and promotion of Powerade by the All Blacks. Powerade is not generally recommended for children,” Dr Signal says.
The study found healthy food and beverage brands also sponsor sport, with rugby again coming out on top with 21% of logos linked to healthy foods and cricket next highest at 5%.
Increasing such healthy sponsorship is a way to support children eating a healthy diet, the researchers say, and has been shown to have an impact. High participation rates in sport and increasing recognition of how diet benefits athletic performance suggest sports settings are ideal locations for promoting healthy eating.
All sports administrators identified the main benefit of sponsorship as financial. Although many report sports organisations felt concerned about associating themselves with unhealthy foods or beverages, others consider sponsorship income more important than what type of food is being promoted.
Recommendations include sports codes requiring members to place a higher priority on health when selecting sponsors, and government regulation and funding to replace unhealthy food sponsorship with healthy sponsorship, just as for tobacco.
The recently created Health Promotion Agency is responsible for tobacco sponsorship replacement in sport. It will be a logical step to include replacement of junk food sponsorship in their mandate, the study concludes.