Ads for Junk Food Contribute to Obesity Among Children, Study Finds
While researchers have long assumed that children who watch more TV are more likely to be overweight because they are getting less exercise, a more important factor in childhood obesity could be the billions of dollars the food industry spends on advertisements aimed at children, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Boston Globe reports (Kowalczyk, Boston Globe, 2/25). The report, which examined existing studies on television, video games, movies and the Internet, says that advertising, marketing and promotions aimed at children are the "main mechanism by which media use contributes to childhood obesity," the New York Times reports (Ives, New York Times, 2/25). According to the Kaiser report, "The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity," children watch more than 40,000 television commercials each year (Shen, Washington Post, 2/25). In the late 1970s, children watched half as many advertisements. Many of the current marketing campaigns feature popular children's TV and movie characters, such as SpongeBob Cheez-Its, Scooby-Doo cereals and Teletubbies Happy Meals (Boston Globe, 2/25). Researchers noted that according to CDC, 15.3% of children between ages 6 and 11 were overweight in 1999 and 2000, compared with 4.2% of children in that age group between 1963 and 1970 (New York Times, 2/25). According to the Kaiser report:
- When two groups of children between ages 2 and 6 were divided into a group that watched cartoons with commercials and another that just watched cartoons, those who watched commercials were significantly more likely to choose advertised products (Boston Globe, 2/25).
- Children who watch several hours of TV each day are more than four times as likely to be overweight than those who watch less TV.
- When shown pairs of food items and asked to choose the healthier food, fourth- and fifth-graders who watched more television were more likely to choose food that was less healthy (Washington Post, 2/25).
The Kaiser report is available online.
The American Psychological Association on Monday called for the federal government to restrict ads aimed at children under age 8, including those featuring junk food. Dr. Susan Linn, a Harvard University psychologist who cowrote an APA report on advertising and children, said, "Given the developmental vulnerabilities young children have to advertising, however, a prohibition on all marketing aimed at children is the only truly effective solution." According to the APA report, advertisers spend more than $12 billion each year pitching products to children. The "most predominant products marketed to children are sugared cereals, candy, sodas and snack foods," co-author Dale Kunkel of the University of California-Santa Barbara, said (Schmid, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 2/24). A summary of the APA report is available online.
"Children spend more time using media [than] any other activity except for sleep," Kaiser study co-author Elizabeth Vandewater, assistant professor at the University of Texas-Austin, said (New York Times, 2/25). Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that such advertising funds are "a powerful counterweight to parents trying to get their kids to eat a balanced diet" (Lee, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/24). Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president for government relations at the Association of National Advertisers, said that the role advertising plays should be investigated more thoroughly, adding, "It would be very unfortunate, if we got off on some dead-end alley trying to manipulate advertising, when that may not be the driving force." Dick O'Brien, executive vice president of government relations for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, agreed and said that even though advertising food to children had been restricted in Sweden and Quebec, it did not translate into lower rates of obesity. O'Brien added, "Another alternative mentioned in the study, which we all here agree with, is to expand public education programs to promote healthy eating and exercise" (New York Times, 2/25).
NPR's "All Things Considered" on Tuesday examined the Kaiser report. The segment includes comments by Rideout, William MacLeod of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and Kelly Brownell, psychology department chair at Yale University (Neighmond, "All Things Considered," NPR, 2/24). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.