Food for Thought on Childhood Obesity

Recently, the Institute of Medicine (search) held hearings in Washington, D.C., on the marketing of food to children.

The hearings came on the heels of a media blitz by the reliably nanny-statist folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (search), who want tough restrictions on the marketing of so-called "low-nutrition" foods to children, including a complete ban on cross-promotional campaigns (think SpongeBob SquarePants Cereal). They're also seeking — believe it or not — a ban on allowing "junk" food companies to sponsor athletic events, charity events aimed at children and academic rewards programs.

"Ideally," the press release says, "only healthful foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products would be marketed to kids."

The World Health Organization (search) has also proposed curbs on the marketing of "bad" food to children.

Let's make an enormous concession for a moment, and disregard the considerable First Amendment considerations to many of these proposed ad bans and restrictions. Even conceding free speech concerns, ad bans make for bad public policy for a variety of reasons:

1. Ad bans have failed everywhere they've been tried. So far, the list includes Sweden, Quebec and Norway. None of these places have shown comparatively significant reductions in child obesity. In Sweden, the restrictions have been in place for a decade, yet the country's childhood obesity rates are in line with the rest of Europe's.

2. There's no correlation between ad exposure and childhood obesity. George Mason University's Todd Zywicki noted at a forum last summer that the average American child actually watches less TV than he did 15 years ago. What's more, children face less exposure to food ads now than they did then, for a variety of reasons.

For one, the remote control has made ad watching optional over the last 20 years. And more recent technology like TiVo may make traditional commercials completely obsolete.

Broadcast television is also losing younger viewers to cable, where ads in general are 40 percent less prevalent, and where food ads comprise about half the percentage of overall ad time that they do in broadcast. Cable also offers more options for channel flipping during commercials, and the emerging popularity of premium cable stations like HBO often means there are no commercials at all.

All told, the average American child viewed 900 fewer food commercials in 2003 than he did in 1994. Since that same average child gained weight, it amounts to a pretty solid rebuttal to the theory that food marketing is a significant contributor to childhood obesity.

3. You'd need to ban ads in adult programming as well. The fact is, you simply can't limit a kid's exposure to food ads, unless you're prepared to ban all food advertising. Most children's television viewing isn't limited to children's television programming. They watch shows intended for adults, too.

In fact, common sense suggests that the kids most prone to obesity — those with minimal parental supervision — are also those most likely to watch adult programming.

Former Food and Drug Administration Administrator Timothy Murris pointed out in a conference last June that if Congress had caved and banned food ads aimed at kids the first time the idea was proposed in the 1970s, the only television show that would have been affected was "Captain Kangaroo."

Today, such a ban would probably hit a few other programs as well, which brings us to the next point …

4. A ban would cripple children's television. The FCC already mandates that broadcasters devote a portion of the broadcast day to children's programming. Food ads make up a huge portion of the ad revenue for those programs. Cut off that ad revenue, and the broadcasters subject to FCC regulation lose any incentive to invest in high-quality children's TV.

Why put money into a sure loser? Furthermore, television not subject to FCC scrutiny — cable, for example — would likely drastically cut back on the amount of television time it carves out for children, or just disregard children's programming entirely.

5. The evidence indicates the source of childhood obesity lies elsewhere. Several recent studies have suggested that the single best indicator of a child's health, diet, weight, and activity levels is the health, diet, weight, and activity levels of that child's parents.

The children of active parents tend to be active. Kids tend to eat what their moms and dads eat. That said, there's also some evidence that the caloric intake among kids hasn't changed all that much over the last quarter-century. What has changed is the amount of time kids are active, outside and exercising. Kids today may watch less television, but they more than make up for it with video games, Internet time, DVDs, or some interactive combination of the three.

Holding Tony the Tiger, the Nabisco elves or SpongeBob responsible for childhood obesity is certainly the easiest public policy prescription to childhood obesity. It would be much more difficult (and rightly so) to charge parents with neglect or child abuse for allowing their kids to get dangerously fat.

But ultimately, a child's diet and exercise habits do begin with his parents. The food industry can't be faulted for putting products on the shelves that sell, nor can it be faulted for marketing those products to their obvious audiences.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at:

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