Physicians Suggest Food Ad Fixes

NEW YORK Food and beverage companies took another lashing this week for their purported role in contributing to the childhood obesity crisis when the American Academy of Pediatrics called on Congress and federal regulators to impose limits on TV ads targeting children.

The Chicago-based AAP, a group of 60,000 primary care doctors who specialize in infants, children and adolescents, published its sweeping recommendations in the December issue of Pediatrics. The report examined advertising in all media, including television, Internet and movies, plus various kids-marketing tactics and health-related concerns over consumption of tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

The conclusion: “Advertising represents ‘big business’ in the United States and can have a significant effect on young people,” the report noted. “Advertisements can be restricted or even banned if there is significant public health risk. Cigarette and alcohol advertising would seem to fall squarely into this category, and ads for junk food could easily be restricted.”

The recommendations, largely a call to action to pediatricians, parents and health groups, include:

— Asking Congress and federal regulators to limit advertising on children’s programming to 5-6 minutes per hour.

— Pressuring Congress to ban cigarette and tobacco ads in all media, including banners and logos in sports arenas, which are areas of high-family traffic.

— Urging pediatricians to write letters to advertisers if they see inappropriate ads.

— Encouraging parents to limit noneducational TV time to no more than two hours per day.

— Calling on Congress to form a comprehensive national task force on the issue with representatives from the toy industry, fast food, pediatricians and public health advocates.

Child advocates said the recommendations are another crucial testament that solidifies the link between advertising and childhood obesity. And they said efforts this year, such as the Clinton Foundation’s partnership with carbonated beverage companies like PepsiCo and others, are merely public relations attempts.

“Marketers are not the sole cause, but the AAP took a very powerful position to link advertising and kid obesity,” said Susan Linn, founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Whatever efforts they [food marketers] think they’ve made is all for public relations and to stave off federal regulation.”

For example, she noted McDonald’s announcement this week that it is testing high-tech mini-gyms in several stores. “It would take a kid two hours on a bike in the store to work off a Happy Meal. How is that going to solve kid obesity?” asked Linn.

And Dan Jaffe, evp of the Association of National Advertisers, lambasted the report, saying its “proposals are counterproductive” and citing factual discrepancies. For example, the report said “Young people view more than 40,000 ads per year on TV alone.” But Jaffe contends that the actual figure is more like 20,000, per the testimony of FTC associate director of economics Pauline Ippolito, at an FTC/HHS workshop on obesity in 2005.

But the report was more of a whimper than a roar, per one food expert. “The statement has an out-of-date feel about it. The Institute of Medicine has already done one of the things they are asking for” (to form a task force), said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Pediatricians should be screaming for protection from commercialism for children. I don’t think the noise level is nearly loud enough.”