Who would ever think that loveable cartoon characters, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, threaten public health?

Well the “food police” apparently do, and this week they announced a lawsuit against Viacom and Kellogg to stop the companies from marketing snack and fun foods to kids.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and several Massachusetts parents allege that fun foods marketed during children’s programs “are directly harming kids’ health since the overwhelming majority of [these] food products are high in sugar, saturated and trans fat, or salt or almost devoid of nutrients.”

The announcement comes six weeks after a report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) “concluded that food advertising aimed at kids gets them to prefer – and request – foods high in calories and low in nutrients,” CSPI announced. “Nickelodeon and Kellogg engage in business practices that literally sicken our children,” claimed CSPI’s media release.

For readers of this column already familiar with prior CSPI shenanigans, the lawsuit comes as no surprise. Like CSPI, the lawsuit has little to do with science and is not in the public interest.

It is, of course, no secret that food companies advertise kid-oriented foods on kid-oriented television shows and that media companies license their cartoon characters to food companies who use them in marketing campaigns. We must assume that such marketing is effective, otherwise companies would not do it.

But that is a far cry from constituting a threat to children’s health.

Despite all the arm-waving by anti-fun food groups like CSPI, there’s no persuasive evidence that typical or moderate consumption of these sorts of foods pose any sort of health threat to children.

First, the IOM report trumpeted by CSPI did not examine, and therefore does not link, food marketing practices with harm to children’s health. The report merely concluded what everyone already knows – advertising works.

The IOM report nevertheless does hyperventilate about the purported epidemic of childhood obesity claiming, for example, that “obesity among children and youth has tripled over the past four decades” and that “the prevalence of type 2 diabetes among children and youth has more than doubled in the past decade.”

But while hysteria over childhood obesity has skyrocketed over the past 40 years, it is far less clear that childhood obesity has similarly increased, what the cause or causes of any increase may be, or that there have been significant health effects associated with any increase.

Neither the data collected on childhood overweight/obesity -- which generally have involved limited telephone surveys where none of the height, weight, age and sex data collected by telephone interviewers were subsequently verified by researchers -- nor statistical analyses of rapidly growing children inspire much confidence. Further, the standards for who is considered overweight/obese have been ratcheted down over the years so more children are now classified that way. Also, changing population demographics of the last 40 years may also contribute to reported changes.

Most importantly, despite the claims of epidemic childhood obesity, research has yet to link the alleged phenomenon with a commensurate epidemic of health effects. In the case of diabetes, for example, there appear to be higher rates of childhood diabetes among some ethnic minority populations, but not among U.S. children generally. Diabetes is also another case where standards have been loosened so that more people are diagnosed with the condition.

Despite lowered diagnostic standards and heightened awareness of the disease, a 2005 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “Type II diabetes is still a rare condition [in children].”

Whatever the trends in childhood overweight/obesity, there's no evidence that snack foods play a significant role.

In one of the few studies to examine snack food consumption and childhood obesity, Harvard researchers recently reported no relation between intake of snack foods and subsequent changes in bodyweight among the study’s 6,774 boys and an inverse relation (meaning snack food intake was associated with lower weight gain) among the 8,203 girls.

The researchers concluded, “Our results suggest that although snack foods may have low nutritional value, they were not an important independent determinant of weight gain among children and adolescents.”

The bottom line here is that while advertising may get kids to nag their parents to buy the advertised foods, there is no evidence that consumption of those foods causes health problems and, therefore, there is no link between the advertisements and health problems. So I expect CSPI’s suit to be short-lived.

One of the individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Viacom and Kellogg, a mother of three, stated in media materials distributed at the lawsuit press conference that, “Critics argue it’s up to the parent to ‘just say no.’ Many times this is easier said than done, especially with strong-willed children, which I happen to have. Sometimes compromise is necessary to preserve my sanity… No reasonable parent would reach for SpongeBob pop tarts with fluorescent blue frosting unless they have a child nagging to buy them some.”

Well, count me in the “critics” camp. Do we really want to demonize animated characters and encourage lawsuits -- or worse, laws -- simply because some parents can’t say “no” to their children?

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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