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Study slams kids’ junk food advertising initiative

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 15-Dec-2009

Despite self-regulation, food and beverage makers still contribute to childhood obesity through television advertising of junk foods, claims a new study commissioned by advocacy group Children Now.

Climbing rates of childhood obesity in the US have placed the food industry in the spotlight in recent years, with the nutritional content of products and companies' marketing practices being increasingly scrutinized. A number of initiatives have been set up in an effort to ensure responsible advertising to children, including the Council of Better Business Bureau's (BBB) Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was established in 2006 as a voluntary self-regulation program for industry.

However, some organizations and individuals, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have complained that the self-regulatory approach does not go far enough, and this latest research could add weight to that claim.

The study, "The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children,” aimed to analyze the effects of the BBB advertising initiative. Conducted by Dr Dale Kunkel, professor of communication at the University of Arizona, it used the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Go-Slow-Whoa food rating system to assess food commercials during children’s programming.

The report found that the majority of foods advertised by program participants (68.5 percent) were in the ‘whoa’ category, which the HHS defines as products that should only be consumed on “special occasions, such as your birthday”. Less than one percent of all advertising from participating companies was in the ‘go’ category, according to the study.

Dr Kunkel said: “We cannot win the battle against childhood obesity as long as we continue to allow the industry to bombard children with ads for foods that they really shouldn’t eat very often. Other countries have already put a stop to this type of commercial exploitation, and it’s time for the US to act more responsibly to protect the health of the nation’s children.”

The study’s findings are due to be presented at a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hearing in Washington on Tuesday.

Industry defense

Speaking at a Children Now conference in Washington on Monday, vice president of the BBB’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative Elaine Kolish disagreed with the study’s conclusions. She said in a prepared statement that self regulation is working, and highlighted Cadbury’s, Mars’ and Hershey’s commitments through the program to stop advertising to children.

She added: “Further, dozens and dozens of products have been meaningfully reformulated or newly introduced to meet nutrition standards. Because of these reformulations, involving reductions in calories, fats, sodium or sugars, the nutritional profile of foods in child-directed advertising has improved significantly… While we understand and appreciate exhortations for companies to keep improving the products they advertise to kids, that’s exactly what they have been doing.”

Director of national policy for Children Now Jeff McIntyre said that industry pledges have failed children and called for “strong regulation to address this quickly and aggressively.”

The full report can be accessed online here .

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