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As expected, the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine released a report yesterday about the marketing of food products to children 12 years of age and younger, and concluded that the marketing of high fat, low nutrition food and beverages to children leads them to consume such foods and run a higher risk of obesity than if they ate healthier products.

The report says that if companies do not change their marketing strategies, the federal government should step in and solve the problem legislatively.

As reported earlier this week on MNB, consumer advocates have been looking for evidence that will allow them to put greater pressure and even legislative boundaries on what can and cannot be marketed to children, while the $500 billion food industry has been hoping that there would be no “smoking gun” with which to attack its marketing practices. It is estimated that more than $10 billion a year is put against the marketing of food and beverages to children 12 and younger.

In a prepared statement, J. Michael McGinnis, senior scholar at the Institute of Medicine, said, "Current food and beverage marketing practices put kids' long-term health at risk. 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. And this is an 'all hands on deck' issue. Parents have a central role in the turnaround required, but so do the food, beverage, and restaurant industries."

The statement released by the Institute read, in part:

“Because dietary preferences and eating patterns form early in life and set the stage for an individual's long-term health prospects, significant changes are needed to reshape children's awareness of healthy dietary choices, the report says. Manufacturers and restaurants should direct more of their resources to developing and marketing child- and youth-oriented foods, drinks, and meals that are higher in nutrients and lower in calories, fat, salt, and added sugars.

“Noting that many factors shape children's dietary habits and that leadership from both the public and the private sectors will be needed to redirect the nation's focus toward healthier products, the committee also called on the government to enhance nutritional standards, incentives, and public policies to promote the marketing of healthier foods and beverages. In addition, schools, parents, and the media should work with government and industry to pursue initiatives that support healthful diets for children and youth. If voluntary efforts by industry fail to successfully shift the emphasis of television advertising during children's programming away from high-calorie, low-nutrient products to healthier fare, Congress should enact legislation to mandate this change on both broadcast and cable television.”

In addition, it recommended that “government should consider the use of awards and tax incentives that encourage companies to develop and promote healthier products for young people. A long-term, multifaceted national campaign should be initiated by the government in partnership with the private sector to educate families and children about making healthy food and beverage choices. This campaign should employ the full range of promotional and marketing tools and should be supported by both public funds and contributions from the food, beverage, and restaurant industries.

“The committee called for governments and schools to develop and apply nutritional standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools that compete with federally reimbursed meals, including products sold in school stores and vending machines or for fundraising. School-based promotional efforts should focus on products that support healthful diets, the committee said.”

Almost as soon as the study hit the streets, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) issued a response that read, in part:

“Providing a wide variety of nutritious foods and beverages, and helping parents make the right choices for their families is our industry’s top priority. Because GMA members share the IOM’s concerns about childhood obesity, they have already undertaken many of the committee’s recommendations.

“For example, according to a survey of GMA members, since 2002:

• 98 percent of our members have improved the nutrition profile of their products
• 83 percent have improved the information they include on food labels.
• More than half are making changes to package sizes, including single-serve and kid-sizes, to help consumers manage their caloric intake.
• More than 90 percent of respondents are promoting healthy lifestyles, and three-quarters are in partnership with public health organizations.”

Just as the industry’s response was to be expected, so is the analysis by Phil Lempert’s, the consumer site, which wrote:

“The problem, of course, is that this simply may not be enough because there will be manufacturers and marketers that simply will not be able to resist the opportunity to market their products to young people. Not having legislation will only protect the manufacturers from what they perceive as government interference, but it will do nothing to protect and educate our children.

“Expect Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), for whom this has been a signature issue, to shortly offer legislation designed to restrict how companies market to children. The question will be whether Congress and the Bush administration have the intestinal fortitude to stand up for children, and face down the lobbying efforts of business interests.”
KC's View:
This debate has just begun. Expect it to expand into a number of areas, and for the debate about school lunch programs also to take on new urgency.

There will be those who will argue for parental responsibility. But that horse has left the barn.

It may be matters of degrees and perception, but at this point the industry has no choice. It has to step up and in action and perception be perceived as pro-child, or leave legislators in the position where they have no choice but draft new regulations.

By the way, one of the things the study says is that there isn’t enough research on the subject of how advertising affects young people older than 12. We suspect that this won’t be the case for long, and that this fight will be taking place on a number of other fronts before long.