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.
But the report calls on the food industry to do much more to voluntarily shift its advertising to promoting healthier foods and to alter the content of television spots aimed at minors. If it fails to do so within two years, "Congress should enact legislation mandating the shift on both broadcast and cable television," it states.
Experts also call on marketers to come up with a common national system for clearly identifying healthier foods for consumers. Companies should also limit licensing of popular cartoon characters for use in the sale of healthier foods to younger children.
Consumer groups applauded the report, saying it validates years of efforts aimed at getting marketers to alter what they see as billions of dollars of relentless messages promoting unhealthy food choices.
The report "marks the beginning of the end of junk-food marketing to kids," Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says in a statement. "The report sends a clear signal to food company executives and advertisers that the industry needs to completely rethink the way they do business."
Industry groups largely rejected the findings, saying that no strong evidence links advertising to obesity in kids and that marketing of junk food is on the decline.
"The shift is happening. It's happening today," says Richard Martin, chief spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Industry is already responding to these issues. We're interested because consumers are increasingly interested in healthier foods."
Martin called the committee's claim that television advertising was directly linked to childhood obesity "specious."
A report issued by the Federal Trade Commission shows that child-targeted food advertising on television has dropped substantially in the last several years.
But the IOM report warns of a shift to product placements, games mixing entertainment with product exposure, and so-called "stealth marketing" practices.
Those strategies are mostly outside the purview of an industry-sponsored group set up to monitor children's advertising on television. IOM experts called on industry to expand funding and jurisdiction of the group, known as the Children's Advertising Review Unit.