Expert Panel Recommends Children 14 and Under be Protected by Food Marketing Policies

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A panel of experts convened by Healthy Eating Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has issued recommendations for company policies on food marketing aimed at children. The experts concluded that kids 14 and younger should be covered by such policies, not just kids age 11 and younger, which is the age to which most companies’ policies apply. The expert panel says that audiences of a media program or venue be considered child-directed if children make up 25 percent of the audience or more, as opposed to the 35 percent threshold typically used by companies with food marketing policies.

The panel recommends that marketing or advertising directed at kids should be considered as such, whether or not the marketing or advertising appears in child-directed programming or venues. For example, an ad with child-oriented animation, games, characters, or other kid-targeted characteristics should be covered by company marketing policies no matter in which programs they are shown. And brands that are marketed to children should only contain products that meet nutrition criteria, the panel says. Many marketing efforts aimed at children show brief images of products that meet nutrition criteria, but place greater emphasis on the brand itself, which may be made up of mostly junk foods.

Food packaging, in-store displays, toy premiums, middle and high schools, and company-owned characters like Tony the Tiger are generally not covered by company policies on food marketing to children. The expert panel recommends that food and beverages advertised by those approaches meet nutrition criteria.

“Kids are exposed to an enormous amount of food and beverage marketing, and the overwhelming majority of products marketed promote obesity and diet-related chronic diseases,” said panel member Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “While companies have made modest declines in unhealthy food marketing to children, they have a long way to go. Children and parents need stronger protections from junk-food marketing than are in place now. We hope companies consider, and adopt, these recommendations to close the current loopholes in food marketing to children.”

The recommendations are designed to fill gaps left by the industry’s own self-regulatory program, and by an industry-stymied federal government attempt to set stronger, but still voluntary, guidelines for industry to follow. The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketing to Children was stopped by lobbying pressure from food and media companies. The industry self-regulatory program, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, has resulted in its member companies setting nutrition standards for the foods they market to children or not marketing any of their products to kids. But that program fails to cover many children vulnerable to food marketing and does not address the full range of media, venues, and marketing techniques that companies use to reach children.

Besides Wootan, the panel included David Britt former CEO of Sesame Workshop, William H. Dietz of George Washington University, Dale Kunkel of the University of Arizona, representatives of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association, and others.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).