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    Institute of Medicine Says Ads Aimed at Kids Promote Unhealthy Diets

    Dec. 6, 2005 - Ever-present marketing by junk food and restaurant companies is damaging the health of American children and teens and should be curtailed to promote healthier diets, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded Tuesday in a report.

    The study shows that food advertising targeted at kids continues to increase while promoting mostly food high in calories, fat, and sugar. Experts called for companies to substantially change their marketing practices within two years or be subject to legal intervention from Congress.

    "Current food and beverage practices put kids' long-term health at risk," says J. Michael McGinnis, an IOM senior scholar and chairman of the committee that issued the report.

    Ads Target Kids

    Food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants spent about $10 billion advertising to children in 2004. At the same time, marketers continue to target more and more food products directly to youth, who spend an estimated $200 billion per year on consumer products.

    "The turnaround required is so substantial, and the issues are so complex, that the full involvement and leadership of the food and beverage industry is essential," McGinnis says.

    Experts pointed to what they said is evidence linking food marketing to people's unhealthy dietary habits and other evidence showing the direct role that high-calorie, high-fat food plays in obesity.

    Nearly one-third of American children are classified as obese or overweight, a figure that public health experts warn puts tens of millions of future adults at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and early death. While less evidence directly ties children's exposure to food ads, the report also says that some data suggest that ads have a limited impact on causing childhood obesity.

    Meanwhile, only 2% of American children regularly eat a recommended diet low in fat but high in fruits and vegetables.

    "Unless we do something about it, we'll be raising the first generation of children that are sicker and live shorter lives than their parents," says Mary Story, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota and a member of the IOM panel.

    Voluntary, for Now

    Panelists praised the efforts of a handful of companies that have begun to alter their advertising practices and designate healthier foods on product packaging aimed at children. "There are some good-faith efforts," McGinnis says.

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