Food marketing to kids: industry's last chance before rulemaking

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a
rulemaking that would place limits on the types of advertisements
seen by children if the industry does not adequately respond with
voluntary measures to growing concerns on the link between
childhood obesity and food advertising.

Speaking Friday at a hearing of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, chairman Edward Markey said the "potentially harmful content"​ of advertisements for unhealthy foods is "deeply concerning". "There is a terrible inconsistency in policies that require broadcasters to air three hours of educationally nutritious programming for kids, and then to have this programming and other children's shows surrounded by a barrage of junk food ads,"​ he said. "As the House Sponsor of the Children's Television Act, I believe that parents and children deserve better. And that act already grants the FCC authority to address many of these issues if the industry does not respond to this problem on its own swiftly and concretely." ​Markey said that in the absence of a proper response from industry, he is prepared to "press the FCC to put on the books rules that will protect the children of our country from these unhealthy messages". ​According to the latest statistics, children aged 2-7 watch an average of 12 food ads a day, while 8-12 year-olds watch 21. Some 50 percent of all advertisements seen by children on television are for foods - 34 percent of these are for candy and snacks, 28 percent for cereal, 10 percent are for fast food, one percent for fruit juices, and zero percent are for fruits and vegetables. "Somehow we've got to figure out how to get our kids to eat real food,"​ said committee member Lois Capps. Other voices from the committee highlighted the role of parents in their children's food choices and health ("kids get fat from what they eat, not from what they see"​), but there was a general consensus that the advertising environment needs to back up parental efforts. According to panelist Dr Donald Shifrin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Communications, these efforts are often "lost in the tsunami of their children's media exposure to less healthful foods". ​He highlighted the Academy's recommendations, which included restricting the advertising of energy-dense nutrient-poor foods; banning junk food advertising on programming viewed predominantly by children; decreasing by 50 percent the commercial advertising currently seen on children's TV; advocating social marketing intended to promote a healthy lifestyle; a move by industry to develop and promote healthful foods to children; and government-funded research on the impact of media on the ongoing health and behavior of children. The food industry is already making marked progress in some of these recommendations, pointed out industry representative Mary Sophos, of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). Also a member of the panel, Sophos highlighted the new Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, under which 11 major food and beverage companies have pledged to devote 50 percent of their advertisements to healthier products. She also said the association is working with the Ad Council on its new campaign with the Department of Health and Human Resources and media groups to communicate messages about health, nutrition and physical activity to parents and kids. "The food and beverage industry has responded to the challenge and we remain committed. There is too much at stake for us to fail,"​ she said. Panelist Patti Miller, vice president of advocacy group Children Now, called on the industry to implement two major recommendations from a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on childhood obesity: shift the balance of foods and beverages marketed to kids to products that are substantially lower in calories, fat, salt and added sugar; and use licensed characters only to promote healthy products. "If voluntary initiatives don't work then Congress must act,"​ she said. "We have to make sure the children of our country are not bombarded by commercial America that is to their detriment,"​ added Markey. "I just hope that the industry responds,"​ he concluded. For more information and to connect to a webcast of the hearing, click here​.

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