Conference Addresses Role of Food Advertisements in Increased Rates of Childhood Obesity
The federal government could take legislative action to regulate advertisements for "junk food" that target children in the event that the food industry does not address the issue, Federal Trade Commission Chair Deborah Platt Majoras warned on Thursday at a Washington, D.C., conference on childhood obesity and food ads, the AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. "Pressure" to limit food ads that target children "has been mounting" since the release of a 2004 Institute of Medicine report that found obesity among children and teenagers has more than doubled in the last 30 years, according to the AP/Times-Dispatch (Quaid, AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/15).
Food companies, which hope to avoid more government regulation of ads that target children, have said they should voluntarily regulate such ads. In her opening remarks, Platt Majoras agreed with the food industry that a federal ban on ads for certain foods is "neither wise nor viable." She added, "Under the right circumstances, industry-generated action can address problems more quickly, creatively and flexibly than government regulation" (Warner, New York Times, 7/15).
However, she said, "If industry fails to demonstrate a good-faith commitment to this issue and to take positive steps, others may step in and act in its stead" (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/15).
According to the Times, the food industry has "pledged to strengthen" the Children's Advertising Review Unit, which regulates ads that target children. On Wednesday, the Grocery Manufacturers Association appointed a task force to examine how CARU oversees video games -- or advergames -- that many food companies feature on their Web sites.
In addition, GMA called for an increase to the $650,000 annual CARU budget and said that the unit should increase staff levels. GMA also recommended expanded ad guidelines to include paid product placement on television programs and in video games.
Food company officials at the conference cited current efforts to market healthier foods and educate consumers about healthy habits. PepsiCo officials discussed the SmartSpot program, which helps consumers identify "better-for-you" products, and Coca-Cola officials cited a middle-school program in which cyclist Lance Armstrong discusses exercise. In addition, McDonald's officials said that the company currently sells 300 million salads annually in the U.S. (New York Times, 7/14).
According to CQ HealthBeat, acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford "praised" the efforts of the food industry (CQ HealthBeat, 7/14). However, according to the Times, critics said that the discussion at the conference lacked a commitment to make "real changes" in ads that target children.
Meanwhile, Pauline Ippolito, an associate director in the bureau of economics at FTC, presented the results of a study that found the number of food ads on television viewed by children has decreased over the past 25 years. However, she said that food companies have moved many ads that target children to other media (New York Times, 7/15).
At the conference, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) warned about the possibility of federal regulation of food ads that target children and said that conventional ads, vending machines in schools, licensing agreements and advergames have contributed to increased rates of childhood obesity.
He also called on CARU to consider the "cumulative effect" of food ads that target children and said the food industry must seek comments from parents and health experts to develop a "clear action plan with independent monitors with the power to punish violators." Failure to develop such a plan could lead to "public backlash resulting in congressional action," Harkin said.
According to CQ HealthBeat, Harkin has introduced a bill (S 1047) that would provide FTC with the authority to regulate food ads that target children. The legislation also would require food labels in restaurants and allow FDA to prevent tobacco ads that target children (CQ HealthBeat, 7/14).
- "SpongeBob Will Shill for Fruits and Veggies" (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/15).
- "Food Marketers Hope Veggies Look Fun to Kids" (Howard, USA Today, 7/15).