Junk-Food Ads Put Kids at Risk

WASHINGTON Cartoon characters should be used to promote healthy foods to kids, instead of encouraging them to eat high-calorie treats that are low in nutrients, according to a federal government study released today.

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies which provide advice on science, engineering and medicine, also recommended that the food industry work with health officials and consumer groups to develop a food rating system.

Other recommendations included expanding the scope of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, the industry group created to monitor ads directed at kids, to include Internet and wireless phone advertising, as well as product placements.

“Current food and beverage marketing practices put kids’ long-term health at risk,” said Michael McGinnis, an Institute of Medicine senior scholar. “If America’s children and youth are to develop eating habits that help them avoid early onset of diet-related chronic diseases, they have to reduce their intake of high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods and sweetened drinks, which make up a high proportion of the products marketed to kids.”

Advertising lobbyist groups reacted to the report with dismay. Wally Snyder, president and CEO of the American Advertising Federation, called the survey’s findings disconcerting. “The advertising industry is keenly aware of the dangers of childhood obesity and has been engaged in finding genuine solutions to this problem for some time,” Snyder said. “There seems to be little recognition in the IOM report of what the industry has been accomplishing.” Snyder said food companies have been promoting healthier products and more active lifestyles for children.

But consumer groups welcomed the report’s conclusions. “It’s time for Congress to put our children’s health ahead of food industry profits,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an organization that seeks to reduce the amount of advertising in American life. “Congress should swiftly expel junk food from public schools, require disclosure of product placement in all media, and eliminate the federal tax deduction for food advertising to children.”