Since I was given a limited time frame to respond to some of the factually-incorrect statements made by a representative of the Center for Consumer Freedom, I thought I would clear up the misrepresentations he made during CNBC’s Power Lunch segment, “ Selling Junk Food to Kids ,” which aired on May 18, 2010.
Mr. Wilson said that a group is “banning Happy Meals in California,” which is incorrect. He is likely referring to the Santa Clara, California ordinance , which simply requires that restaurant food sold with incentive items (e.g., toys with Happy Meals) meet nutritional standards. This is a great way for a jurisdiction to make the default choice the healthy choice and improve the nutrient profile of food typically eaten outside the home by children.
Mr. Wilson incorrectly stated that, “the First Lady’s report indicates that there is no- not a shred of evidence advertising leading to obesity.” However, the “ White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report ” cited the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) report on Food Marketing to Children and Youth, stating that although a causal link between marketing and obesity has yet to be “firmly” established, “research indicates that advertising can have a strong influence on children.” The IOM report explained that there is “strong evidence” that supports the conclusion that television advertising influences children 2-11 to “prefer and request high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages,” in addition to influencing short-term consumption by this age group. In terms of causation, the IOM explained:
“Statistically, there is strong evidence that exposure to television advertising is associated with adiposity in children ages 2–11 years and teens ages 12–18 years but the current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity.”
The White House Task Force Report recommended significant changes to meaningfully address marketing to children and suggested that if voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to children do not yield substantial results, government regulation may be necessary.
Mr. Wilson said that “pretty much every major food company” no longer markets unhealthy food to children, that they raised the bar to the minimum age of 12 and only market healthy food to children. Mr. Wilson was likely referring to the 16 major food companies that are part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “ Report Card on Food-Marketing Policies ,” only 16 of the 128 companies responsible for food marketing to children are part of the CFBAI and even the CFBAI only applies to limited forms and venues of marketing (excluding, for example, marketing on packages, new digital media, and most in-school marketing). Even those that are part of the CFBAI do not have a uniform standard to determine which of their products fall into the “healthy” category. The resulting standards are so weak that most companies’ child-oriented products are considered “better for you,” (e.g., Lucky Charms). None of these criteria were created by a transparent process or meet any external guidelines for healthfulness, including government, IOM, or any non-profit organizations’ standards. Further, the companies with policies have different definitions for what constitutes an audience of less than 12 years old (ranging from 50% to 18% of the total audience).
Mr. Wilson is correct that food companies are major promoters of physical activity in the United States, but he left out that they do this to deflect any focus on, and thus criticism to, the food industry.
Contrary to Mr. Wilson’s statement, this controversy is not about “lifestyle” choices but rather protecting vulnerable populations from overreaching by corporations seeking to make a profit off of them. A free market economy is based on rational and informed consumers, which children are not. If the Center for Consumer Freedom’s position is that it is the responsibility of the parents to say “N.O.,” then their client food companies should market to the parents and leave children alone. If marketing to children is not having an effect, there would be no reason for food and beverage companies to spend $1.87 billion annually marketing to youth, including devoting almost 11% of their advertising budget ($186 million) on in-school food and beverage advertising, where parents are not even present.
The evidence regarding television advertising to young children shows • Industry self regulation has proven ineffective. For example, since the CFBAI, the five cereals marketed most to children on TV in 2009 are Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Honey Nut Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Reese's Puffs. Children ages 2-5 years saw 243 ads for these five cereals, and those ages 6-11 years saw 272 ads. Further, fast food marketing to children 2-11 years increased by 28% from 2002 to 2008.
• Marketing to children is inherently deceptive because children cannot differentiate between factual information and marketing intended to persuade them.
• The First Amendment does not protect deceptive speech made for a profit so such regulations would be constitutional.
• The FTC has authority over deceptive practices and can and should restrict marketing to children in this context.