The study measured the number of fast-food ads kids watched and found a fast-food TV-ad ban for children's programming would reduce the number of overweight children aged 3 to 11 by 18%, and for adolescents (12- to 18-year-olds) by 14%. Data also revealed a more pronounced effect on males than females.
The National Bureau of Economic Research describes the study as "the largest of its kind to directly tie childhood obesity to fast-food advertising on American television," based on viewing habits of 13,000 children, using data from U.S. Department of Labor research carried out in 1979 and 1997. The study also reports that eliminating tax deductions associated with TV advertising would result in a reduction of childhood obesity, though in smaller numbers.
"We have known for some time that childhood obesity has gripped our culture, but little empirical research has been done that identifies television advertising as a possible cause," Shin-Yi Chou of Lehigh University, one of the study's authors, said in a statement. "Hopefully, this line of research can lead to a serious discussion about the type of policies that can curb America's obesity epidemic."
The other authors of the study, which appears in The Journal of Law and Economics this month, were Inas Rashad of Georgia State University and Michael Grossman of City University of New York Graduate Center. It's important to note that even the study's authors question the practicality of so much governmental interference in advertising.
"What it all comes down to is the choices parents make for their kids," said Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Chain Restaurants, which represents the industry. "Parents choose what their children eat and where their children eat. We all know that children have strong opinions, but parents make the choices."
Cause and effect
Amandine Garde, a law lecturer at the University of Exeter who focuses on legal issues surrounding ad bans, said the biggest hurdle to instituting limitations on messaging to children has been proving the relationship between ads and weight. "Now we're seeing the issue being addressed, the causal relationship, which was denied by the food industry for many, many years," she said. "If you have a causal relationship, it makes the case even stronger that there is a need for regulation."
Sweden and Norway instituted bans on all ads to children in the early 1990s, but the legislation sought to avoid exploitation rather than prevent obesity. Quebec has banned food advertising to children during programs geared toward kids, and the Canadian province has shown lower childhood obesity rates than surrounding areas, although there may be a variety of contributing factors.
Voluntary efforts under way
The industry, of course, has been taking steps on its own, hoping to avoid a ban. Major food-industry players, including McDonald's, Burger King, Kraft and Kellogg, have signed on to the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Childrens' Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. As part of the voluntary program, participants have agreed to devote 50% of advertising dollars geared at children under 12 to messages that promote healthier dietary choices or more-active lifestyles. Healthful-product messages must be consistent with USDA and FDA standards.