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Last updated: December 6, 2005 9:01 pm

Junk food ads linked to fears on child diets

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US researchers said for the first time on Tuesday there was a clear link between advertising and young children’s appetite for junk food as they called on government to force food companies to stop marketing unhealthy foods to the young if voluntary limits were failing.

The findings, in a study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), represent a challenge to many US food companies that have argued that there was no proven link between the use of TV advertising, the foods that children consumed and obesity rates.

They come as the European Commission is on Wednesday due to release a green paper on the promotion of healthy diets and physical activity in Europe, where there is growing alarm over childhood obesity rates.

It is also one year since Kraft broke ranks with its peers in the food industry by pledging to stop advertising certain of its sugary foods to under-12s, and to promote instead foods that met new company health criteria.

  The IOM, a research unit of the US National Academy of Sciences, said in a study: “Because dietary preferences and eating patterns form early in life and set the stage for an individual's long-term health prospects, significant changes are needed to reshape children's awareness of healthy dietary choices.”

About 16 per cent of US children and teenagers aged 6-19 are obese, compared with 4 per cent for 6-11 year old and 5 per cent for 12-19 year olds in 1960, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The IOM study, requested by the US Congress and Senate, assessed “hundreds of relevant studies” to come up with its conclusions.

“The committee found strong evidence that television advertising influences the food and beverage preferences and purchase requests of children ages 2 through 11 years old and affects their consumption habits, at least over the short term,” the IOM said.

Companies spent an estimated $10bn to market foods, beverages, and meals to US children and youth last year, the study said.

Four of the top 10 items that children aged 8-12 said they could buy without parental permission were either foods or beverages.

The IOM said: “If voluntary efforts by industry fail to successfully shift the emphasis of television advertising during children's programming away from high-calorie, low-nutrient products to healthier fare, Congress should enact legislation to mandate this change on both broadcast and cable television.”

The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, which represents scores of food companies including Kraft, Nestlé and Sara Lee, said: “Because GMA members share the IOM’s concerns about childhood obesity, they have already undertaken many of the committee’s recommendations.” 

Asked it the GMA accepted a scientific link between advertising to children and consumption habits, spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said: “No-one is denying that advertising works but no-one, including the IOM, has demonstrated that it is linked to obesity.”

Mark Berlind, a Kraft spokesman, said his company had not approached the subject as “a scientific question”.

“Irrespective of where the science leads, consumers are clearly concerned about marketing to younger children. Our approach has been to attempt to proactively respond to those concerns,” he said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based non-profit lobby group active in health and nutrition, welcomed the study, saying it “sends a clear signal to food company executives and advertisers that the industry needs to completely rethink the way they do business”.

“The IOM report really confirms what most parents know to be true from personal experience:  food advertising aimed at kids works.  It changes kids' preferences.  And since the foods that are advertised are mostly high in calories and low in nutrition, the net effect is less healthy children.”

The IOM said that while the “statistical association between ad viewing and obesity is strong”, it had not concluded TV advertising to children directly caused obesity, saying available studies were “too limited” to make such a claim.

The IOM’s call for legislative action is unlikely to be received sympathetically by authorities in the US, where self-regulation by food companies has become entrenched policy.

There have been few significant initiatives on marketing to children since Kraft’s voluntary move, which it this year extended to certain of its websites aimed at under 12s.

By contrast in Europe, EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou in January gave food companies one year to stop targeting children or face legislation.

Derek Yach, associate director of global policy at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, said a third approach was needed to tackle global obesity.  “For something as complex as this we should be looking at a multi-stakeholder solution rather than a solution that is led by a self-regulatory approach - which tends to fail - or a governmental regulatory  approach - which tends to be extremely expensive and probably results in over-reach,” he said.

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