Calls for government restrictions on fast food sponsorship deals Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Source: Stuff, 7 June 2016

Health experts are calling for an end to sponsorship deals between sports people and junk food giants.

Last week, a five-year-old boy walked into hospital, before an appointment to have his teeth pulled, drinking Powerade. When asked why he was drinking the sugar-filled energy drink he replied "because Richie does". This comment, referring to former All Blacks captain and national treasure Richie McCaw, has reignited calls for an end to sponsorship deals between fast food and drinks companies, and sportspeople.

It's not the first time a child has made this type of comment. In 2012, a young netball player in Porirua told researchers Powerade gave people "role model energy". 

Healthcare professionals say when sporting idols endorse sugary drinks or fast food it sends a confusing and unhealthy message to young sporting fans - and with the third worst childhood obesity rate in the OECD, not to mention dental health issues, that's not something role models should be encouraging.  New Zealand research from 2012, based on logos on sports teams' websites, found 38 teams were sponsored by companies that produced unhealthy food.

Rugby took the biggest bite of the burger, with 21 teams supported by unhealthy food brands, according to the study. Meanwhile, the Warriors are sponsored by burger chain Wendy's and Super Rugby teams are backed by KFC. Boxing star Joseph Parker is sponsored by Burger King and New Zealand Football is sponsored by McDonald's.

GOVERNMENT 'SHOULD BAN JUNK FOOD PROMOTIONS'

University of Otago public health researcher Louise Signal said these sponsorship deals were a "considerable concern" and it was up to the Government to ban the promotion of junk food in sport. Similar steps had been taken when it came to promoting alcoholic products. Signal said children associated sporting success with consuming the product and  studies had found a clear linkbetween junk food marketing and children's consumption.

This approach is supported by the  World Health Organisation's latest Ending Childhood Obesity report. Signal said blame didn't lie solely on sports teams or sportspeople - everyone was responsible from the Government and the sports sector, to parents. But leadership from the Minister of Health and Sport would be "invaluable". While teams believed they needed the money, sport received little money from these sponsorship deals, so they could be replaced with minimal impact on sports organisations, she said.

'AVERAGE 10-YEAR-OLD DOESN'T READ A LABEL'

While some companies that produce unhealthy food said they were not marketing their products to children, Kiwi kids struggled to differentiate between what was healthy food consumption and what wasn't. Nutrition Foundation dietitian Sarah Hanrahan said these types of endorsements were confusing for children. "On one hand they're being told about health and wellness at school, and on the other they're switching on the TV and seeing their sporting heroes doing something quite contrary... "And these people are absolutely their heroes."

Children who saw All Blacks consuming sports drinks did not realise the sugary beverages were appropriate for high-performance athletes but not for everyday kids, Hanrahan said. "The average 10-year-old doesn't read a label." The consumption of these types of foods led to obesity and poor dental health, which led to an increasing number of children needing their teeth pulled. 

DON'T BLAME RICHIE

New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief executive Rob Nicol said some of the points raised by the health sector could have "some real validity" but they needed to take them to the "right table". "I think it's completely inappropriate to put it back on the individual athletes...that's just naive to be honest."

It was up to the Government to put in place restrictions or standards around product promotion, as it had done for alcohol, Nicol said. It was fine for people to have staunch views but it wasn't for the players to decide what was right for the country. "At the end of the day, athletes are people and they have their own pressures and beliefs and comfort level in this space.... "It's important that people don't all of a sudden start apportioning name on the individual athletes."

A lot of rugby players already opted out of certain promotions because they did not want to be associated with specific products, Nicol said. For example, many Pasifika players did not want to appear in ads involving fast food due to the issues with obesity and health in their communities.

When players or teams worked with products that fell into that "grey space", the association had a lot of creative control over the ads so the players weren't directly endorsing unhealthy choices, he said. Rugby players also had a conscientious objection clause in their contracts, which meant they could choose not to be involved with a specific product if it went against their personal or religious beliefs.

SO, IS RICHIE RESPONSIBLE?

McCaw's manager Dean Hegan said while the star player was captain of the All Blacks while Powerade was a sponsor, he never personally appeared in any of the sports drink's ads. "Richie McCaw is certainly not responsible for the sponsorship deals his former employer made," Hegan said. "But we all feel for the parents and this child."

Since leaving the All Blacks, McCaw had begun endorsing dairy giant Fonterra and as part of that he supported the Milk For Schools initiative. New Zealand Rugby general manager of public affairs Nick Brown said the All Blacks signed the new deal with Gatorade because it helped athletes stay hydrated while exercising. "All our teams advocate healthy lifestyles and, they, like most Kiwis, accept that sports drinks can play a useful role in the balanced diet of active people."

Frucor Beverages, the company in charge of Gatorade in New Zealand, said it did not market directly to children. Frucor managing director Craig Irwin said NZ Rugby approached Gatorade because it recognised the drink "as a highly effective, scientifically-proven sports drink". "The product has specific functional benefits for adult sportspeople, such as replacing key electrolytes essential to hydration and muscle function that are lost during intense physical activity."​

Duco Events, who work with Joseph Parker and organise boxing events, declined to comment on its sponsorship deals with Burger King. Warriors managing director Jim Doyle did not respond to requests for comment.