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Quick and Dirty

Cut the Fat

The City Paper Fry-Cam™

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 12/14/2005

Although more than 9 million U.S. children are obese, more than $10 billion is spent annually to advertise food and beverage to young people in America.

And things are getting worse, according to Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity, a December report released by the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit and nongovernmental health-advisory organization. The report notes that obesity among children has more than tripled over the past 40 years—the study on which the report is based found that obesity in kids went up from 5 percent in the 1960s to a whopping 16 percent in 2002. The report, which focused on TV advertising and its effects on kids ages 2 to 11, says that children in the United States face an onslaught of food advertisements within shows featuring their favorite characters and in their favorite video games. This marketing starts targeting kids, researchers say, almost from birth.

“Children are aware of food brands as young as 2 to 3 years of age,” says Mary Story, a professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the report. “And the majority of children’s food requests are for branded food products.” Even parents who only feed their children healthy foods notice that their kids request unhealthy foods like pizza and soda after they see ads for such items on television.

The Institute of Medicine recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulate TV advertising to reduce the amount of ads for unhealthy products targeted at children. It suggests that the government forbid the use of cartoon characters to sell unhealthy foods, for example, and it says these regulations should also cover advertising on the internet and in video games.

In Baltimore, 20 percent of kids are overweight or obese according to former city health commissioner Peter Beilenson. (“Weighty Issue,” Mobtown Beat, July 21, 2004) Ken Stanton, chairman of the University of Baltimore’s interdisciplinary obesity research initiative, says he doubts the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations will make much of a dent in kids’ health because marketing is so pervasive. Telling the food and beverage industry that it must do “minor things around the edges, [like] saying ‘we’re not longer going to put our ads for Twinkies on Sponge Bob Square Pants’” will not work.

Instead, Stanton suggests heavily taxing fast foods, which often are much cheaper than healthier food options.

“We’re going to have to start thinking seriously about imposing regulations on what’s available where and reduce the availability of [unhealthy food], and making healthy food more available,” he says. “In the long run, it would become more profitable to do it right. And then we’ll tilt the balance.”

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