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Marketers Urged to Junk the Junk-Food Ads for Kids

Emphasis should be on healthful food and drink choices, report says

TUESDAY, Dec. 6, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. food industry needs to switch its marketing emphasis from junk food to more healthful choices for young children if the rising tide of childhood obesity is to be stemmed.

In other words, Shrek needs to move his big, green body from the cereal aisle over to the veggie aisle.

That's the message of a new Institute of Medicine (IOM) report that challenges the food and beverage industry to direct its creativity toward good nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

"There is strong evidence that television advertising of foods and beverages has a direct influence on what children choose to eat," said Dr. J. Michael McGinnis, senior scholar at the IOM. "The dominant focus of food and beverage marketing to children and youth is for products high in calories and low in nutrients, and this is sharply out of balance with healthful diets."

McGinnis chaired the IOM committee that released the report, "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" on Tuesday. The report, the most comprehensive review ever of the scientific literature on the influence of marketing on the diets of children, was undertaken at the request of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, in turn, had been asked by Congress to research the issue.

Both the public and private sectors need to be involved in the solution, the report stated.

"Issues confronting the health and well-being of American children, particularly with respect to childhood obesity, require an all-hands-on-deck effort, not just efforts on the part of the government and public and voluntary organizations but on the part of the private sector as well," McGinnis added. The "creative minds" of the food and beverage industry need to focus on creating healthy products and messages, he said.

If voluntary efforts by industry fail in refocusing advertising on healthy foods, then Congress needs to step in and consider legislation, the report added.

Obesity among U.S. children has tripled in the last 30 years, type 2 diabetes has doubled, and only a fraction of children are meeting the recommendations for a healthy diet, the report stated.

"Unless we do something about it, we will be raising the first generation of children that will be sicker and have shorter lives than their parents," said Mary Story, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health and a member of the committee.

A spokesman for the advertising industry called the report's findings frustrating, because many companies have been reformulating products to make them healthier or reporting calorie and fat content on menu boards or packaging, the Associated Press reported.

"There's a long way to go, but the industry is responding, and it doesn't seem like there's any recognition of that in this report," said Wally Snyder, president and CEO of the American Advertising Federation.

"Lack of physical activity is a major problem here on childhood obesity. And, in fact, the industry is heavily involved in special programs to educate parents and children about the need for good nutrition and physical activity," he said.

The report found that marketing efforts are escalating, with companies spending an estimated $10 billion to push foods, beverages and meals to U.S. children in 2004. New products directed specifically at young people are coming out at a much faster clip than products aimed at other groups, the review found.

Among the report's findings:

  • Television advertising clearly influences food and beverage choices of children aged 2 to 11, at least in the short-term. There is not enough evidence to draw conclusions among teenagers or to know the long-term consequences.
  • Industry should voluntarily shift the emphasis of TV advertising to healthy products aimed at children. If these efforts fail, Congress should pursue legislation.
  • Licensed characters such as cartoon characters should be used only to promote healthful diets.
  • Restaurants should expand and actively promote healthy food options for children and also provide calorie content and key nutritional information.
  • Industry leaders should work with government and consumer groups to develop a standardized rating and labeling system. This would include a graphic representation of the nutritional quality of specific foods. "There's a need to harmonize across industry the definition of a healthful product and to ensure that the standards used are transparent," McGinnis said.
  • The Children's Advertising Review Unit, an industry-financed group, should expand its voluntary guidelines to newer forms of marketing, such as the Internet, cell phones and strategic product placement.
  • The federal government should look into incentives to encourage companies to develop and promote healthier products.
  • The government, in partnership with the private sector, should launch a massive public information campaign directed to parents and children to promote healthy food preferences from an early age.
  • Schools should develop and implement nutritional standards on all foods and should promote the availability of healthy foods.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should appoint an agency to monitor progress in promoting more healthful diets. The Secretary of HHS should report to Congress within two years on progress and any additional needed action.
  • More research is needed into how marketing strategies outside of television -- such as mobile phone ads, "advergames," strategic product placement and the Internet -- affect children's food choices.

"The turnaround required is so substantial, and the issues are so complex, that the full involvement and leadership of the food and beverage industry is essential," McGinnis concluded. "It's vitally important that it include the resources of energy and creativity of industry as well as the government. Although the government clearly has a role, this issue is so dominant and the change that's required so substantial that the effort has to be multi-faceted, otherwise it simply will not work."

More information

To view the full report, visit the National Academies.

SOURCES: Dec. 6, 2005, news conference with J. Michael McGinnis, M.D., senior scholar, Institute of Medicine; and Mary Story, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?
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