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Political food fight over junk food ads to kids

Consumer groups have launched a lobbying campaign aimed at restricting the amount of junk food marketing targeted at kids.
image:  childhood obesity
Potato chips and French fries make up half of all the vegetables kids eat. Matt Slocum / AP

Consumer groups have launched a lobbying campaign aimed at restricting the amount of junk food marketing targeted at kids. It’s called, “We’re not Buying It” and it’s intended to reduce the thousands of commercial messages children see every year for foods that aren’t good for them.

“Our kids' health is really at stake here,” says Juliet Sims with the Prevention Institute, one of the consumer groups leading this political food fight. “Each year they spend $2 billion marketing food to kids and the vast majority of that is junk food.”

By now you’ve heard about just how big the childhood obesity problem has become, thanks in large part to first lady Michelle Obama.

One in three kids in this country is now overweight or obese. Overweight children face a greater risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.

According to a recent federal report, the prime sources of calories for American children these days are: cookies, cakes, pizza and sweetened drinks. That same report says potato chips and French fries make up half of all the vegetables kids eat.

In 2009, Congress directed top nutrition and marketing experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Federal Trade Commission to develop guidelines for companies marketing food to children 2 to 17 years old.

On Wednesday, David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told Congress the working group plans to make significant revisions to its draft proposal. Vladeck testified that the FTC staff has now determined that except for certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to have the advertising guidelines include adolescents age 12 to 17.

This Interagency Working Group released its proposals for comment in April. Now it would like Congress to accept them. They focus on two basic nutrition principles for marketing food to children:

  • Advertising and marketing should encourage children to choose foods that make meaningful contributions to a healthful diet from food groups including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds and beans.
  • The saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium in foods marketed to children should be limited to minimize the negative impact on children’s health and weight.

These are voluntary recommendations and do not call for any government regulation. Even so, food, beverage and media companies don’t like the draft guidelines and they’ve been aggressively lobbying Congress to reject them.

Christopher Gindlesperger, director of communications at the American Beverage Association, calls the recommendations “impractical and overly restrictive.” And he says they won’t reduce childhood obesity.

Gindlesperger points out that between 2004 and 2010 the industry has cut calories available from beverages in schools by 88 percent. He calls that “a great achievement that we are very proud of.”

Food makers also object to having the guidelines include ages 12 to 17. They believe these are young adults who do not need to be protected from advertising.

Dan Jaffe with the Association of National Advertisers calls the working group’s proposals “extraordinarily radical” and says that 88 of the top 100 most consumed foods in the U.S. would not make the cut.

“We do not think the government has the authority to step in and start restricting the advertising of legal foods that are legal for anybody to purchase,” Jaffe says. “We have set up a very strong self-regulatory system that has set very clear guidelines for this advertising.”

Jaffe says advertising of food and beverages has gone down more than 50 percent to kids under 12 and the advertising that is done has changed substantially.

Consumer advocates agree that the food industry has made improvements in recent years. But they say, more needs to be done because the majority of food ads aimed at kids are still for unhealthful products.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a consumer advocacy group), says the new guidelines are needed because the voluntary nutrition standards currently used by food companies “are too weak” and allow a lot of sugary, salty and fatty foods to be considered healthy.

“We’re not asking companies to stop marketing to kids,” Wootan says. “We’re just asking them to be responsible with how they do it.

New types of ads target a new generation
Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, is helping lead this fight to get the food advertising guidelines put in place because he sees how food companies are using smart phones and the Internet (everything from Facebook to online games) to reach kids.

“They’re using all the ways that kids get information today that flies under the radar of what a parent knows about or even controls,” Chester explains. “This is food marketing on digital steroids that they want to maintain and they are afraid these proposed guidelines would put a dent in that.”

My two cents
Clearly, food companies have the right to sell their products to kids and make a profit. But they also have the responsibility to protect the health of our nation’s children. And let’s not forget, for young children, it’s the parents’ job to decide what they eat. Just because your son or daughter asks for it, doesn’t mean you have to buy it.

Change is never easy, but as the Interagency Working Group’s report notes: “Industry has the resources and creative know-how to encourage children to make better choices …” I believe they do.

And remember, these proposals are voluntary. There’s no enforcement action here. Companies can choose to follow them or not. It makes me wonder: why is the industry so afraid of a little advice?

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