Blog Posts, Childhood Obesity, Domestic and Economic Policy

Can I Become Thin If I Just Mute the Food Ads?

As somebody who has waged a lifelong battle with the bathroom scales, I might be willing to swallow a few principles and go whole hog in embracing the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children’s proposed guidelines for the advertising of food products to children—if I thought these guidelines would do an ounce of good for overweight children.

Advertising for cereals, snacks, sodas, and meals in restaurants would have to change drastically to meet the proposed government guidelines.  Furthermore, Toucan Sam, the Keebler Elves, Cap’n Crunch and other cartoon characters used to advertise food to children would probably have to be retired.

The rules are voluntary—unless, of course, companies are unwilling to adopt them voluntarily, in which case it is reasonable to expect guidance of a less elective nature.

The IWG — a new government entity, created by the 2009 stimulus package and composed of the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—developed the guidelines.  Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said that the campaign will be effective because, “Children are strongly influenced  by the foods they see advertised on television and elsewhere.”

Here’s my problem: There is no proof that that  advertising makes kids obese. Sitting in front of the TV can make anybody fat, but that is another issue.  It would seem to me that before taking the drastic actions proposed by the IWG, we might have reasonable expectations that they would reduce childhood obesity.  We have no such expectations.

Is there a relationship between advertising and childhood obesity? One FTC study looked at a nearly 30-year period during which food advertising was decreasing, while rates of obesity among children were increasing. Indeed, from 1977 through 2004 food advertising seen by children declined by 9 percent—yet obesity rates continued to climb.  If advertising were the determinant, you’d expect a  different result.

Suppose we take the steps recommended by the IWG  and they have absolutely no impact on childhood obesity?  Most of us know intuitively that advertising has an effect—it may introduce us to a new product or remind us of the appeal of a familiar one. But do you gorge on Yoplait every time you watch a Yoplait ad?  Has a Mickey D’s ad ever made you so insatiably famished that you rushed to the nearest McDonald’s and started downing Big Macs as if you were in a burger division of the Coney Island hotdog eating contest?

The notion of government helping us make decisions about what our kids should eat is not only offensive to some people—it is probably the most ineffective way to handle the issue of eating choices. Can you imagine the conversations bureaucrats will be having if these guidelines are adopted?

For example, eggs were once considered unhealthy because of their cholesterol but now they are again considered healthy sources of protein. I want to be a fly on the wall when the bureaucrats try to decide which products can be advertised and which can’t.

Let’s be honest, the standards reflect a set of values that may be easier for the Whole Foods set than for ordinary, working families.  Processed foods, for example, are out, while raw  ingredients are hot.  You may find processed products aesthetically unappealing but some people like them better than sushi. A hardworking, single mother may be glad to once in a while feed her children something other than raw fruits and vegetables.

As currently proposed, only 12 of the top 100 foods that Americans eat could be advertised to children. Products like raw fruits,
vegetables, fat-free yogurt, 100% fruit juice make the cut, but low-fat yogurt doesn’t. Canned veggies—forget it. Does any food advertised have to be sustainable? Just kidding, but this is an elitist agenda.

But the real question is: Will it work? We are likely going to a lot of trouble for nothing.  There are positive things being done—First Lady Michelle Obama is promoting exercise, which is proven to work in controlling avoirdupois. Let’s do things known to reduce childhood obesity, not pie in the sky remedies that may have absolutely no effect. Hey, are you still allowed to say pie in the sky?

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