Push Past Partisan Gridlock to Regulate Food Marketing to Children


Three thousand, three hundred, and sixty-one: that is the average number of television advertisements children see every year. The vast majority of these ads are for energy-rich, nutrient-poor products like Coke, Big Macs and Snickers. Bypassing and undermining efforts by parents, teachers and healthcare professionals, the food industry spends approximately $2 billion every year, or nearly $5 million a day, directly targeting children and adolescents. While the industry defends its practices as harmless or protected by commercial speech license, predatory marketing to children is a major contributing factor to the ever-growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

By now, any reader who even slightly keeps up with current events has heard the facts on childhood obesity. Rates have risen steadily over the past thirty years, and recent data estimates that 17% of 2-19 year olds are obese. Childhood obesity increases the likelihood that an individual will be obese later in life, in turn increasing the possibility of incurring illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Such trends have already begun, and the healthcare costs related to obesity are estimated between $147-$210 billion every year. While individuals and society at large are paying these costs, food and beverage corporations continue to rake in profits: over $10 billion for Nestle, $8 billion for Coca-Cola, and $3 billion for Kraft.

According to studies by the U.S. Institute of Medicine, “food marketing causes children and adolescents to prefer, request and consume food high in salt, sugars, and fats”, and this is further demonstrated by industry efforts. Products like Lunchables, infused with excess sugar, salt and fat were designed specifically for children with ads proclaiming “all day, you gotta do what [adults] say. But lunchtime is all yours.” The McDonald’s Happy Meal website is obviously geared toward children. And sugary, neon-colored drinks such as Chubby were made specifically for children. These tactics and campaigns set children up for a lifetime of addiction to unhealthy foods, breeding the next generation of Americans that will suffer from obesity and its related illnesses.

Those opposed to regulation of food marketing to children see any intervention as government overreach, and argue parents should be the ones to educate children on what they should and should not eat. This argument ignores reality. Parents do not have access to the exciting graphics and cartoon characters that the food industry employs to tout its products. Nor have parents spent billions of dollars on researching how to make food hyper-palatable. For example, the “bliss point” is the exact optimum level of sweetness the human body can take to maximize sensory pleasure, and sugary products are designed in accordance to entice consumers’ taste buds and sensory systems. Already overstressed and overscheduled parents too often are overmatched in their ability to withstand their children’s desire for such foods. Furthermore, children often consume these unhealthy and addictive foods outside of parents’ views. Youth are able to purchase these products independently either at stores or even in school cafeterias. Unless critics assume that parents follow their children around 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, mom and dad’s saying “no, you can’t eat that” will not solve this problem.

Regulating food marketing to children is not an instance of overreaching government. Government intervened when cigarettes were shown to be a public health danger and restricted marketing tobacco products to children — over industry opposition . As a result, youth smoking rates have been declining for the past 20 years. Congress has the authority to act on this matter but there is no time to wait for it to overcome the gridlock. Rather, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the potential to regulate here, and it has done so in the past. The health of our nation’s future demands action and the FTC should have the courage to intervene and protect the country’s youth from food companies’ predatory marketing tactics.

Jake Fishman is in his 2nd year in the joint JD/MS program in Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University. The views expressed are his alone.

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