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October 18 2011

Food Advertisers Are Not To Blame For Childhood Obesity

Town Hall
Julie Gunlock

The media likes to use the word “epidemic” and “health crisis” to hype problems and draw an audience's attention. When we are talking about the so-called “childhood obesity epidemic,” a little sober analysis would benefit the discussion. It's true that since the 1980s, childhood obesity has risen significantly, but overall the Center for Disease Control finds American children to be generally healthy and the obesity rate hasn't grown in the last ten years.

While it's a positive development that the obesity rate has stabilized, it's still appropriate for health officials to consider why so many kids are battling the bulge at such a young age. The administration has made reducing the childhood obesity rate a priority. That's a fine goal. Unfortunately, they seem less interested in examining if their preferred solution to the “obesity epidemic” — regulating the food industry — can really be expected to have any positive impact.

In fact, their utter disinterest in the actually efficacy of their solutions suggests that it isn’t healthier kids, but bigger government they seek. Indeed, since President Obama took office, we've witnessed a massive expansion in government's regulation of the food industry, and greater government involvement in their very process of what Americans consume.

Last year, the food nannies were thrilled to see billions of dollars added to the federally-run (and woefully mismanaged) school lunch program. The administration also pushed through a provision in Obamacare requiring chain restaurants to add calorie information to their menus — a crippling extra burden on businesses in these tough economic times. More recently, the federal government has announced plans to regulate the very ingredients food manufacturers use in their products, such as salt. That means some Washington bureaucrat will soon be tinkering with the recipe of your favorite snack food. Better stock up now!

Each of these government programs drives up food costs, wastes taxpayer resources, and makes America a little less free. Even more shockingly, there is simply no research to support the belief that any of these efforts will actually lead to improved health.

Now the federal government is planning to limit how food manufacturers advertise their products to children—the theory being that commercials sway children to demand unhealthy food. Yet there has been no study of what impact advertisements actually have on children’s diet. Congress created the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) to fill that void and study if advertising impacts children’s weights.

Unfortunately, the IWG never produced a study. Instead they issued their own set of absurdly strict regulations on how food can be advertized to children. The IWG’s recommended regulations would ban some of America’s favorite foods from being advertized—including healthy foods like pretzels, crackers, low-fat milk and even bottled water. And according to one study, the regulations, if enacted, would cost upwards of 70,000 jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue.

In addition to ignoring their actual mandate, the IWG ignored what the food industry is already doing voluntarily to address marketing to children. In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission called for self regulation. In response, seventeen leading food companies created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) for the express purpose of reducing food advertising to children and ensuring that only healthy food is advertised during children’s programs.

For whatever it's worth, industry’s voluntary efforts have succeeding in shielding children from candy and other unhealthy food commercials. According to congressional testimony by the Better Business Bureau, of all the advertisements shown during children’s programs (such as cartoons), only 24 percent were food products. Of that 24 percent, a whopping 79 percent were from companies participating in the CFBAI (which pledges to only market healthy food during children’s programs). In other words, of the commercials a child might see, only a fraction are for food and of those, most of the food being advertised is healthy.

Last week, the IWG announced they planned to alter their original recommendations to target only advertising directed at children under age twelve. It is a good sign that the IWG is listening to their many critics, but the announced changes are not enough.

The IWG must be disbanded. It has failed to stay within the congressional mandate and shown reckless disregard for the economic impact of their recommendations. In addition, the IWG issued these recommendations without a shred of proof that food advertising relates to childhood obesity.

Americans don't need a nanny government to micromanage what food commercials run on kids' television—just as they don't need bureaucrats monitoring salt intake, banning the toys in happy meals, trying to do away with trans-fats, or hitting us over the head with calorie information. It's our job as parents and individuals to make healthy choices. And those concerned that their kids might see too many advertisements can always employ this simple four-word solution:

Turn. Off. The. Television.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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