A weapon to fight childhood obesity?

About 12.5 million children and teenagers in the U.S. are obese, a prevalence that has almost tripled since 1980. The cost of this rapid and frightening rise is $14 billion each year in direct health expenses, not to mention the long term consequences: A greater likelihood of being overweight or obese as adults, as well as higher risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even some cancers.

So it is understandable, even ethically imperative, that people want to take action to address one of the possible causes.  A public forum was held in Washington yesterday to hear input on new government guidelines limiting how and what food manufacturers and other advertisers can market to children. The guidelines drawn up by the FDA, FTC, CDC and USDA are voluntary, but would put pressure on food marketers to change their products in order to meet certain standards. The guidelines would apply not just to TV advertising, but also print, radio, internet, social media, movie theaters, toy premiums, product placement and sponsorships. Written comments from the public will be accepted until July 14 at the FTC web site.

Few American children have eating habits that meet the Dietary Guidelines. The new voluntary standards would attempt to standardize the current self-regulation by food manufacturers, and prod them to reduce the amounts of sugar, fat and sodium in the products they market to children. Although some companies are already taking slow steps to reformulate products, there is no across-the-board effort to do so, and the industry objects to the new guidelines. Yet the American public seems to support government intervention in this area. A 2008 survey found that 57% of respondents thought the government should take more action to help deal with childhood obesity, 82% said that manufacturers should do more to reduce fat, sugar and salt, and 60% disagreed with the statement that food companies were already doing enough to limit advertising of unhealthy food to kids.

Why worry about advertising so much? An extensive review of the literature by the American Psychological Association found that children under 8 cannot critically interpret advertising, do not understand that it is designed to persuade, and generally accept product claims as true. Children under the age of 6 usually cannot tell the difference between a program and an advertisement. Yet young children do recall the content of ads they see, and often demonstrate preference for advertised foods with as little as one exposure to an advertisement.

It is estimated that children spend almost 45 hours per week in front of a TV, computer or video game. A strong association has been found between the increase in ads for non-nutritious food, and increases in childhood obesity. While parents have a responsibility to provide healthful food and to limit screen time, their authority is constantly subverted by a 24-7 bombardment of messages, as well as what the CDC refers to as obesogenic environments. Doesn’t it make sense to provide parents and children with this relatively modest attempt to fight back?

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Check out the Admongo game that the Federal Trade Commission developed to teach older kids and teens about advertising.

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