Efforts to curb junk food marketing to kids have been repeatedly thwarted by commercial interests, says ex-CDC director

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Dr William Dietz: 'Commercial interests have consistently overridden the health concerns of children.' ( Photo by Orlando Chioto)
Dr William Dietz: 'Commercial interests have consistently overridden the health concerns of children.' ( Photo by Orlando Chioto)

Related tags Nutrition

Although federal efforts have led to “modest improvements” in food quality and marketing practices in recent years, “commercial interests have consistently overridden the health concerns of children”, according to one former government health expert.

Writing in the latest issue of Health Affairs​ - William H Dietz, MD, PhD, the former director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the government-funded Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - argues that the food industry has repeatedly thwarted federal efforts to curb junk food marketing to kids.

New technologies could limit children’s exposure to ads that market food and beverages

While advocacy groups shouldn’t throw in the towel when it comes to putting pressure on the government to act, they would probably have more impact if they focused on alternative approaches, said Dr Dietz, who is a consultant to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and a senior adviser to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is committed to reversing the childhood obesity epidemic.

If they don’t want children to be exposed to junk food ads, advocacy groups should “mobilize parents as a political force to improve standards for food marketed to children”,​ argued Dr Dietz.

It's important to sustain parental trust - that's the huge strength that the public sector has - and a huge vulnerability for the food industry

They should also utilize social media for counter-advertising (cf. the CSPI’s video showing diabetic bears guzzling Coke​), and push for wider adoption of technologies (tools on TiVo, Adblock Plus) that can block or skip ads, he told FoodNavigator-USA.

"It's important to sustain parental trust - that's the huge strength that the public sector has - and a huge vulnerability for the food industry. Creative attempts to counter the advertising messages of the big food and beverage companies can have a big impact and they don't always cost a lot of money."

The food and beverage industry has vigorously resisted efforts to change its products and practices

The bulk of his article is devoted to how the industry has “vigorously resisted​” attempts to restrict food marketing to children in recent years, from the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) ‘kidvid’ proposals in the late 1970s to its Interagency Working Group (IWG*) 2011 proposals to stop firms marketing foods high in sodium, sat fats, trans fat and added sugars to kids.

A recent study in PLOS One alleged that self-regulation is not working when it comes to advertising fast food to kids, although its findings were challenged by McDonald's

The IWG proposals, hailed by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) as “evidence-based” ​and “scientifically sound​”, were welcomed by consumer groups, but dismissed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) as unworkable and inconsistent with the government’s own Dietary Guidelines.

GMA: IWG proposals unworkable and unscientific

One of the GMA’s biggest concerns was the ultra-low sodium targets (140 mg/RACC for individual foods by 2021) in the IWG's proposals, which it argued would prevent members from marketing (to children) “almost every ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, most instant oatmeal products and many whole wheat and whole grain breads​”.

In the case of both ‘Kidvid’ and the IWG proposals, the GMA and others lobbied Congress relentlessly to ensure that neither made any headway, claimed Dr Dietz: “The comments in response to the proposed principles resembled the tobacco industry template: challenge the science, dismiss the scientists’ qualifications, and exaggerate the impact of implementation.

“The financial and political resources of the food and advertising industries mobilized the congressional response and quashed rulemaking.”

Dr Marion Nestle: ‘It is hard to believe how thoroughly Congress is in bed with the food industry’

The IWG proposals were eventually kicked into the long grass in March 2012 by FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz after he was told the FTC would not be given any cash to take them forward without first proving compliance with executive order 13563 (which requires that a cost/benefit analysis is conducted to justify any proposed regulatory action).

Professor Marion Nestle: "It is hard to believe how thoroughly Congress is in bed with the food industry."

The news was greeted with horror by Dr Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, who said it was “hard to believe how thoroughly Congress is in bed with the food industry​”.

It is time to consider alternative strategies

But the episode merely proved that alternative strategies should be explored as "groups that support the needs of children will never have the same resources in the political arena as those of the industries that market to children”, ​argued Dr Dietz.

 “It is time to consider alternative strategies.

“Increased efforts by pediatricians, advocates, and consumer groups to inform parents about the pervasive and intrusive nature of food marketing and the impact of such advertising on their children’s health may help mobilize parents as an effective political force and increase demand for technological and other strategies that will help parents limit the food marketing to which their children are exposed.”

Does self-regulation work?

children-istock-Ann Marie Kurtz
Childhood obesity affects 17% of children ages 2–19

But what about self-regulation? Does it work?

Somewhat, said Dr Dietz, who acknowledged that the industry-backed Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) has set guidelines for calories, fat, sodium, and sugar in products marketed to kids. Meanwhile, NHANES data shows that children are now drinking less sugary soda and fast food than they used to, he added.

“[But] a close reading of the industry criteria suggests that the CFBAI based its maximal nutrient levels more on the current products marketed by its members than on a judgment about what was best for children",​ he claimed.

The childhood obesity epidemic

While recent data from the CDC shows that growth rates for childhood obesity have started to level off, it still affects 17% of children ages 2–19, said Dr Dietz.

And while a 2005 IOM report concluded that there was insufficient evidence to link television advertising to obesity in children, other research showed “a direct relationship between the number of hours of television viewed and the likelihood that youth will be overweight”, ​he claimed.

 “A direct relationship also exists between television viewing and the consumption of advertised food, ​which is high in sugar, salt, and fat​.” 

Source​: Health Affairs​, September 2013 

‘New Strategies To Improve Food Marketing To Children’

 Author​: William H Dietz, MD, PhD

 *The IWG represents the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

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