Playing the blame game

Childhood obesity has, over the past two decades, become a critical worldwide problem, and many critics blame the food industry for advertising calorie-laden foods to these impressionable minds. Last year, the Council of Better Business Bureau's (CBBB) Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was set up as a voluntary self-regulation program for industry. Participants adopted nutrition standards for all marketing aimed at children, and also committed to devote at least half of their kids' advertising to promote healthier products, good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. To their credit, food companies have been working hard to develop healthier products for kids. Under pressure from health advocate groups and parents to change their marketing practices, McDonald's, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Hershey, Cadbury Schweppes, General Mills, Kellogg, PepsiCo, Unilever, Campbell Soup, Masterfoods, Burger King and most recently ConAgra agreed to voluntarily put more controls on the way they advertise to children. But perception is everything. According to a recent Harris Interactive Poll conducted for The Wall Street Journal Online's Health Industry Edition, 84 percent of U.S. adults believe that childhood obesity is a "major problem" and 78 percent (compared to 65 percent in 2006) blamed advertising directed at children as a major contributor to rising childhood obesity rates. Of the 2,503 U.S. adult respondents (573 are parents or guardians of children age 12 or younger). Respondents also blame the public school system and say it should be more active in limiting children's access to unhealthy foods (88 percent vs. 83 percent in 2006) and 94 percent say public schools should do more to promote regular exercise. Most disturbing is the finding is that 60 percent think government should play a more active role in regulating the kinds of marketing and advertising that the food industry targets at children - up 7 percent from 2006. Chuck E. Cheese agreed to join the CBBB initiative in part, while Yum! Brands declined. Most recently, although Nestle and Dannon highlighted their efforts to provide healthier children's foods, they declined to join the initiative (at least for the time being), reports Decision News Media. "At a time when our country is facing a serious childhood obesity crisis, the responses from these companies raises the question of whether voluntary industry action will be sufficient to combat this important public health issue," says the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet Edward Markey, adding he is prepared to "press the FCC to put on the books rules that will protect the children of our country from these unhealthy messages." The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the authority to place a ban on all junk food ads; it could limit the overall advertising minutes available for advertising to children; or it could disqualify broadcasters from renewing their licenses if children's programs are aired with junk food ads. I'd like to be protected from Chairman Markey. As advertising guru David Ogilvy said so succinctly, "The enemies of advertising are the enemies of freedom." Advertising does not cause obesity. Kids spending all their time surfing the web or sitting on the couch watching TV instead of moving their derrieres is the real cause of obesity.

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