col Let's put junk food advertising on a diet
By Joan Ryan
SAN FRANCISCO -- Some facts:
About $12 billion a year is spent on advertising targeted at children.
Children watching television during Saturday mornings view more than twice as many advertisements for unhealthy foods as adults see during programs aired after 9 p.m.
Nearly half of all the foods advertised during children's programming are cakes and candies. The average American child sees 10,000 food advertisements each year. Ninety-five percent are for fast-food, sugary cereals, soft drinks and candy.
The National Cancer Institute spends $1 million per year on advertising the five-a-day program to encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables. That's $1 million. In 1998, McDonald's spent just more than $1 billion on advertising.
The entire government budget for nutrition education is one-fifth the annual advertising budget for Altoids mints.
Supermarkets alone sold $10 billion in "children's" foods and drinks in 1998, with sales expected to reach $12 billion by 2003. The baker of Hostess products, Interstate Bakeries Corp., has a Web site, called Planet Twinkie, featuring interactive games for children ages 7 to 11. On the site, children see a raccoon character familiar to them from Hostess television commercials. The raccoon, gliding on skis, attempts to eat as many Twinkies as it can.
Keebler's sends instant messages to children surfing the Internet.
There are educational books that use M&M's,; Reese's Pieces and other candy to teach counting. Teletubbies, a wholesome show on PBS, engaged in toy promotions of McDonald's and Burger King.
Child psychologists regularly help consumer researchers ascertain what will attract children to a product. This research led recently, for example, to Cheetos producing its Mystery Colorz Snacks. The high-calorie snacks, neon-orange in color, turn a child's tongue blue or green.
Children directly influenced more than $170 billion spent on food purchases in 2001.
The number of severely overweight children in the United States has doubled since 1980.
Between 1986 and 1998, obesity among African-American and Hispanic children increased by more than 120 percent; among white children, by about 50 percent. A third of children from lower-income households are obese.
Nationally, hospital costs related to childhood obesity have more than tripled in the past 20 years to $127 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overweight children are showing up in doctors' offices with adult health problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Type II diabetes.
Some show early-warning signs of heart disease.
The U.S. surgeon general in January declared childhood obesity a national epidemic.
Those are the facts.
Here is the question.
Why don't we ban corporations from using the public airwaves to manipulate our children into craving products that, like tobacco, are harmful to their health? The precedent is there: We banned tobacco advertising from television when smoking-related diseases became a public health crisis.
So First Amendment issues have been resolved. What else still stands in the way of banning junk-food advertisements during children's TV programming and on children's Web sites?
"It took 40 years to get where we are today with the fight against tobacco," Dr. Kelly Brownell of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders said during a Senate hearing on childhood obesity last week. "And the industry stalled, ignored the data, denied the data and did all the things that are well known now. You can just see it coming with the food companies."
Sweden and Norway have already banned junk-food advertising to children.
Great Britain is considering the same. In the United States, we can continue to let the food industry turn our children into junk-food junkies. Or we can ground all flights to Planet Twinkie.
Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.