SURGEON GENERAL CALLS OBESITY THE 'TERROR WITHIN'

Wants Ad Agencies to Help Government 'Sell Health'

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MIAMI (AdAge.com) -- Describing obesity as "the terror within," the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Richard Carmona, called on the advertising industry to help fight the country's obesity problem, by helping to improve food labeling, educating their clients and ending misleading informercials.

Dr. Carmona, speaking today to advertising

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and marketing executives at a meeting here of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said the government was working closely with food marketers such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and Kraft, among others, to tackle the latest health crisis.

Partnering with marketers
When asked if marketers were partly to blame for the obesity epidemic, Dr. Carmona said, "I don't see it as blame. Who would have thought our society would evolve like that and consumers would be eating that way?" Dr. Carmona said the government was hoping to partner with the food industry rather than pursue regulatory changes, which could effect advertising. "The food industry has come along way, we don't want to impede capitalism," he said.

The government will turn to media outlets such as Viacom's MTV and Walt Disney Co. properties that reach children to help get the healthy-eating message out. The Department of Health and Human Services is already working with Sesame Street to provide education on better eating.

Selling health
"We need your help to better understand our product," Dr. Carmona said. "We sell health and it's very important that the public gets it." He asked agencies to bring their "evidence-based practices in messaging" and their ability to talk to segmented markets.

He said the government was working with food marketers to change labels so the public could better understand of what's inside the can or package. "We need to be clear about what the contents are." He added, "The trouble with food labeling is that very educated people don't understand. The informercials contain a lot of spurious information. We have a health illiterate society."

Dr. Carmona said obesity-related diseases were set to outstrip smoking-related deaths in the U.S. He said 400,000 people a year died from obesity-related disease, while smoking-related disease killed 450,000. Dr. Carmona said he initially had a hard time getting the media to cover the issue, because of the focus on terrorism, homeland security and the war in Iraq. "This is the terror within. We lose 400,000 people a year and what are we doing about it?"

Diet fads
While not directly criticizing the low-carb industry, he said any diets that did not recommend eating a balanced meal were not good for you. "I'm concerned about all diets that purport to be a quick fix," he said.

Dr. Carmona called on more advertising agencies to either contact the Ad Council or his office to get involved. Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson recently produced an ad showing body parts, such as love handles, that had been lost through exercising.

The 4A's Management Conference, being held at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach in Miami, ends today.

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