Childhood Obesity, Domestic and Economic Policy, Op-Eds

Silly Government, Parenting Is for Parents

Published in The Hill, 10/12/11

There has been ample debate lately about who is really committed to making our children healthier. The argument goes something like this: If food manufacturers were seriously concerned about children’s health, they would make parents’ jobs easier by getting rid of the cartoonish characters they’ve used since the 1950s to market their products. They would also stop running television advertisements on programs ranging from “Dora” to “American Idol,” stop sponsoring sporting events and children’s charities and neglect to advertise the market-driven nutritional improvements they’ve made to their products.

It sounds ridiculous and extreme, but this is exactly what is happening in the debate over proposed marketing guidelines developed by the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG). The debate has become so heated that the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade and the Subcommittee on Health are holding a hearing about this very working group today.

Composed of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the group released its proposed guidelines last spring. Going beyond traditional advertising outlets, the group seeks to restrict marketing at all levels, including characters on cereal boxes, sponsorships on television and cable programming, at sports events and even through charity work sponsorships.

Blaming the use of a character like Tony the Tiger for the childhood obesity epidemic is just silly. Tony has been on cereal boxes and in commercials since 1958. Characters like Tony provide brand recognition, something that any good advertising campaign does. But they are not making children fat.

According to the CDC, childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled since the 1980s (incidentally, well after the debut of the above-mentioned character). What has changed is children are spending more sedentary time in front of screens — 7.5 hours per day according to a 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. At the same time, according to a study published in the Journal of School Health, only 3.8 percent of elementary schools and 7.9 percent of middle schools are providing daily physical education classes.

It’s no coincidence that obesity has risen along with the poverty rate. The Census Bureau found that the U.S. poverty rate is at its highest in 52 years. More than 33 percent of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year are obese, according to a study by the Trust for America’s Health, compared with the 24.6 percent who earn at least $50,000 per year. Should these advertising guidelines pass, companies will either have to retool their recipes to fit the guidelines, thus making the product more expensive for communities least able to afford the increase, or stop advertising the product, which would likely make it scarcer.

These nutrition principles are extreme — even regular Cheerios, widely acknowledged as heart-healthy and nutritious, are deemed “unmarketable” for containing too much sodium. Low-fat yogurt, 2 percent milk and peanut butter don’t make the grade, either. Do we really want to lead parents, particularly those who live in underserved communities, to believe these foods are unhealthy?

In a paper recently released by the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, we argue that these guidelines will not reduce childhood obesity in the United States. Instead, they will hurt low-income parents’ ability to purchase relatively healthy and affordable foods. A smarter government approach would include efforts to reduce poverty and regulatory over-reach, private-public partnerships (such as first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign), increased physical education in public schools and increased supply of healthy and affordable grocery outlets in underserved communities.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. Dr. Anne Rathbone Bradley is a senior economist and fellow at the Bernard Center.

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