Institute of Medicine Report Based on Outdated Research

The Institute of Medicine report on food advertising and childhood obesity is a serious indictment … based on outdated research.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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"This month we are presenting you some research that was first called for in 2001 …"

"In 2002, we were charged with developing an action plan to combat this crisis …"

"What we present here is a study of studies: 120 of them to be exact …"

How much would you respect this magazine if this page or any other started out that way? Those kinds of statements - the ones in quotes, I mean - don't exactly engender a sense of respect and urgency for any report. Yet they pretty fairly paraphrase the work behind "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" a bombastic report released Dec. 6 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some immediately called it a "landmark report" and likened it to the 1964 Surgeon General's report on tobacco. "Tony the Tiger on death row?" was the front-page headline in Advertising Age.

Others pointed out it is nothing more than a study of studies, reports nothing truly new and breathlessly recommends what the food industry already has begun to do. Nevertheless, the National Academies and this particular committee carry weight in Washington, and the report has become a rallying cry for those who want to pin all the blame for childhood obesity on the food and advertising industries.

The IOM report has a long list of suggestions that it's difficult to take issue with: establishing inter-departmental task forces and other activities at the federal level; making schools more accountable for nutrition in several ways; and involving the food industry and media in developing and marketing healthier choices.

But in its own summary of the report, IOM comes up with just five "key facts," four of which lay the blame solely on food and advertising:
  1. "There is strong evidence that marketing foods and beverages to children influences their preferences ..."

  2. "The dominant focus of marketing to children and youth is on foods and beverages high in calories and low in nutrients and is sharply out of balance with healthful diets."

  3. "Marketing approaches have become multi-faceted and sophisticated …"

  4. "Given the media and marketing environment that envelopes our children's lives, there is a surprising paucity of research on ways they may be used to promote health."
(A fifth one asked every sector's help in turning this crisis around.)

In overlooking all of the progress and positive messaging undertaken in the latter half of 2005, it actually undoes the foundation for healthy eating and lifestyles being laid by the food and advertising industries.

The IOM committee is a veritable who's-who of academia. And maybe that's part of the problem. Every one of its 16 members has a string of letters after his name: MD, MPP, MPA, PhD, MBA, JD and RD. Thirteen of them were directly from universities, the chair was an IOM senior scholar, one was a private consultant who also teaches and one was the retired CEO of Sesame Workshop (parent organization of the kids' TV show - now that was a good choice).

Not one from private industry.

The report cites what I've been told is a fallacy: that the average child sees more than 40,000 advertising messages a year. And it presumes that advertising has gone up in recent years. And that most advertising to kids is for foods. And that most food advertising to kids is for bad foods. Ergo…

None of those premises is true.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission last summer released a report that children are seeing fewer TV ads for food than they did a generation ago: 13 a day now versus 18 in 1977 (see the news report in our August issue). But that report is only about six months old, not of the vintage of most of the facts in the IOM report. The FTC has limits on how much advertising can be directed at children: 10.5 minutes of advertising per hour during "children's programming" times and 12 minutes per hour during the rest of the week day.

The IOM report calls the youngest children the most vulnerable. How many 2- and 3-year-olds do you know that dictate their menu and food shopping, much less drive themselves to McDonald's? There's a very big dose of parental responsibility missing, both in American life and in this report.

Yes, children are watching more TV than they did a generation ago - and that's a big part of the problem - but they're not seeing more food ads. Perhaps we should have the government seize TV stations and force them off the air weekdays between 3 and 5 p.m. Make that mandatory homework time with surprise home inspections by local police. If the Patriot Act hasn't been renewed by the time this is published, maybe some well-intentioned congressman can slip some language in.

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