President Urged Not to Retreat on Kids' Food Marketing

Scientists Support Work of Administration’s Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children

September 27, 2011

The Obama Administration should resist the food and advertising industries’ pressure to torpedo voluntary nutrition guidelines for foods marketed to kids, according to academic experts. In a letter today to President Barack Obama, 75 physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, and marketing experts from universities around the country urged the President to ensure that the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children completes its work and finalizes the congressionally requested marketing guidelines.

Comprised of officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the IWG released draft nutrition guidelines and marketing definitions in April. Nutrition and health advocates praised the guidelines, which recommended reasonable ceilings on the amounts of sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats and proposed minimum amounts of fruit-, vegetable-, or whole-grain-based ingredients in foods marketed to kids. But even though those guidelines are totally voluntary, junk-food advertisers are waging a campaign of disinformation aimed at getting the government to withdraw them.

“You and the First Lady have helped Americans understand that child nutrition and obesity are national health concerns, with one in three children either overweight or obese,” the scientists wrote. “While numerous factors contribute to obesity and children’s poor diets, food marketing plays a key role.”

Junk-food advertisers, in the guise of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, have attacked the voluntary guidelines as an assault on the First Amendment, a point debunked by top Constitutional experts, and claimed that adopting the voluntary guidelines would result in job losses, based on a flimsy industry “study.” Providing media relations work for the coalition is former White House communications director Anita Dunn. Industry lobbyists have prevailed upon House appropriators to add language blocking the IWG, though the Senate Appropriations Committee has reaffirmed its support for the IWG.

In a gambit to fend off the government’s proposed voluntary standards, the industry’s self-regulatory program, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, recently released its own proposed nutrition standards. That proposal is an important concession for an industry that earlier refused to develop a uniform set of marketing standards for the program. Nevertheless, the industry’s proposed standards are weak and allow for the continued marketing to young children of Reese’s Puffs and Cookie Crisp cereals, some Kool-Aid drink mixes, sugary “fruit” snacks like Fruit Roll-Ups, and other overly sugary or salty junk foods.

The letter points out that “while the CFBAI has prompted modest reductions in unhealthy food marketing to children and product reformulation, studies show that the vast majority of marketed products remain high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars and/or are low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In 2009, with the industry’s self-regulatory program in effect, 86% of food ads seen by children featured products high in saturated fat, sugar, or sodium, down from 94% in 2003 (before self-regulation).”

“It would be a real setback for children’s health if the Administration backed down on strong guidelines for food marketing to children, especially given the transparently specious arguments of junk-food advertisers,” said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit consumer watchdog group that organized the scientists’ letter.

“Denying the science on food marketing and childhood obesity is like denying the science on global warming or evolution, and the Administration should not retreat in the face of the baseless arguments of food-industry lobbyists,” Wootan said. "If food marketing to children isn’t effective, why does the industry spend $2 billion a year on it?"

Signers on the letter include Emory University professor and former CDC director , Jeffrey Koplan; Harvard Medical School professors George Blackburn, JoAnn Manson, and Carlos Camargo; University of Arizona children’s media authority Dale Kunkel; University of Minnesota professors Henry Blackburn and Mary Story; George Bray of Pennington Biomedical Research Center and Louisiana State University; Richard J. Deckelbaum of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons; Steven Gortmaker of Harvard School of Public Health; New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle; Victor Strasburger of University of New Mexico School of Medicine; and Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint.

Curbing the amount of junk food advertising aimed at young children is also a major tenet of Food Day, a grassroots mobilization for improved food policy culminating in thousands of events around the country on October 24.


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