Protect children from ads for unhealthy products

By Ann McFeatters

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27 2013 4:07 p.m. MST

FILE- In this Jan. 11, 2012 file photo, Clear Channel employee, AJ Dillard puts up an anti-smoking billboard in Reno, Nev.

(Reno Gazette-Journal, Andy Barron) Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

We are desperately searching for a topic on which the White House may speak without raising the hackles of every breathing Republican. It is difficult.

But in this season of good will and gluttony, we are called to worry, by the Obama administration, about obesity among our young. The White House has raised this as a subject of grave national concern, and we rejoice, seeing a parallel.

Back in the Paleozoic age of TV advertising, tobacco companies were forced to fund anti-smoking ads aimed at children.

Children nagged smoking adults to quit. Parents hid cigarettes from disapproving progeny. But cigarette ads no longer are permitted on network TV and thus there is no coordinated industry-funded anti-smoking ad campaign aimed at children. States still collect about $25 billion a year from the federal government's 1998 agreement with the tobacco industry and taxes but spend only two percent on anti-smoking efforts, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Last year the federal Centers for Disease Control conducted a three-month general anti-smoking campaign, resulting in 100,000 adults quitting, according to the medical journal The Lancet. The campaign cost $54 million, compared with $8.8 billion spent on advertising by the tobacco industry.

The moral? Media campaigns work. Adult smoking has declined although the National Cancer Institute says it still accounts for 90 percent of lung cancer deaths among men and 80 percent among women. .

Having looked at such evidence, President Obama, who told a U.N. official he hasn't smoked for several years because he's scared of his wife's disapproval, heartily approved Michelle Obama's current campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

The first lady's "Let's Move" campaign is just the beginning. She complained at a White House conference in September that marketing to children of foods high in sugar and fat is a serious problem. She wants it to stop. The Federal Trade Commission estimated in 2006 that about $1.8 billion is spent on advertising junk food to American children; 70 percent of TV ads on children's programming are for empty calories.

Children are twice as likely to be overweight as they were in 1980 and adolescents are three times more likely to be too fat as in 1980, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Other countries are paying attention. Britain forbids advertising food high in fat, salt and sugar to children under 16. The Economist magazine reports Mexican children watch 12,000 commercials for junk food every year, prompting the Mexican government to take steps to ban such ads in the afternoons, evenings and on weekends. Quebec bans all advertising aimed at children. Regulatory action against advertising junk food to children is spiking around the globe.

Some U.S. companies such as Unilever, Coca Cola and Disney voluntarily vow to limit children's exposure to ads for fattening products such as soft drinks. But there will be no government move any time soon to curb advertising to children.

Despite Republican sentiment that government is too heavy handed when it comes to regulating business, there is no drumbeat for new, extensive federal regulation on such social issues. Although it may seem obvious that watching commercials causes children to demand junk food, there has been no overwhelming research blaming such commercials for obesity. At most it's seen as one cause among many, such as the prevalence and relatively cheap cost of high-fat, high-sugar foods.

That leaves the issue of what children put in their mouths mainly up to parents, who collectively are fighting a losing battle on obesity. Carefully explaining to a two-and-a-half year old in the supermarket that spinach and broccoli are "yum-o," a mother the other day got this solemn declaration, "No, mommy. Not yum-o."

Mrs. Obama, do your thing. We need you to keep the pressure on to educate more of us and heap shame on companies clogging little bodies with worthless calories. Just leave the leftover turkey, pie and Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs to the adults.

Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Readers may send her email at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.

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