Sloth, not ads, is responsible for fat kids

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Everywhere you look, food advertising is being blamed for childhood obesity. The World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine have hit the industry for its practices. The Federal Trade Commission is getting in the game. And in recent weeks Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin has threatened advertisers and food companies with draconian legislation.

Harkin's statements invoke a body of scientific evidence supposedly linking food advertising with childhood obesity. To put it nicely, this is wishful thinking. There is simply no solid evidence of a connection. At the same time, there are many compelling reasons to believe that no relationship exists.

The vast majority of people believe that parents, not food advertising, represent the primary factor in kids' food choices and weight. And the experts agree. "Despite media claims to the contrary," one recent article in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine noted, "there is no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children's food consumption and, consequently, no reason to believe that a complete ban on advertising would have any useful impact on childhood obesity rates." The article pointed out that countries such as Sweden, and provinces such as Canada's Quebec, have banned food advertising to kids, and they're no thinner than the rest of us.

Even the inventor of punitive "fat taxes" (also known as the "Twinkie tax"), Yale University Professor Kelly Brownell admits: "There is only circumstantial evidence that the ads cause poor eating." The "circumstantial" evidence generally cited by anti-advertising crusaders relates to a moderate correlation between TV viewing and childhood obesity. Of course, the fact that watching TV is a sedentary behavior in itself is rarely mentioned. Nor do industry opponents like to admit that the connection between obesity and video games (where food advertising is rare) is much stronger than the connection between obesity and TV viewing.

It's easy for politicians to blame food advertising. That's because regulating it doesn't cost any money. But the true driver of childhood obesity these days is a steady decline in physical activity-and addressing that problem will require serious tradeoffs.

"In a debate that has often focused on foods alone," former Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan observes, "actual levels of caloric intake among the young haven't appreciably changed over the last 20 years." Unlike Mr. Harkin's claims about food advertising, a growing body of research does indeed corroborate McClellan's point.

SCHOOLS PART OF THE PROBLEM

Earlier this year, research published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found "insufficient vigorous physical activity was the only risk factor" for overweight children. An article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted: "The lack of evidence of a general increase in energy intake among youths despite an increase in the prevalence of overweight suggests that physical inactivity is a major public health challenge in this age group." And an article in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism pointed out: "It is often assumed that the increase in pediatric obesity has occurred because of an increase in caloric intake. However, the data do not substantiate this."

All of this makes intuitive sense. If Grandpa hiked three miles in the snow (uphill both ways, of course) to get to school, and Dad traveled to junior high on his bike, today's kids get door-to-door service in the family minivan. Walking and biking trips made by children have dropped more than 60% since the late 1970s. A full quarter of American children get no physical activity whatsoever.

Schools have become part of the problem. With tight budgets and a renewed focus on reading and math, gym is going the way of the dinosaurs. An article in the journal Pediatrics found that only 21% of American adolescents participate in a physical education class each week.

Meanwhile, food is getting a bum rap. It may sound counterintuitive, but after studying more than 14,000 American children, a team of six Harvard doctors found that snack food and soda do not contribute to childhood obesity. The study, which was published in The International Journal of Obesity, concluded: "Our data did not offer support for the hypothesis that snacking promotes weight gain."

As is often the case in emotionally charged debates, policy is getting far ahead of research. The self-described "food police" at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have urged litigation by trial lawyers and state attorneys general to restrict food advertising to children. A government commission in Maine recently proposed extra taxes on advertising certain foods to kids. And-sacre bleu!-France has already enacted such a proposal.

The science may not be on their side, but industry opponents have the momentum. Defending food advertising in this environment has certain risks. Nevertheless, the risks associated with giving in to political pressure are even greater.

Consider what happened to Kraft after its 2003 announcement that it would reduce sugar, fat and calories in many of its products, shrink single-serve portions and limit marketing to children. Far from getting credit from trial lawyers and the food police, Kraft was subjected to further demands and increased scrutiny. CSPI called Kraft's moves just a first step and insisted on further restrictions. Obesity lawsuit instigator John Banzhaf informed BusinessWeek that he still intended to litigate based on the company's child-oriented marketing. And Banzhaf's colleagues at the Public Health Advocacy Institute sent a letter threatening legal action against Kraft unless the company could prove its customers were actually getting thinner.

a point

"Kraft's policy suggests marketing high calorie-density products to kids is improper and perhaps substantially harmful," argues law professor, tobacco lawsuit veteran, and PHAI board member Richard Daynard. Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams echoes Daynard, saying: "A company that pulls the plug on its advertising to children is acknowledging there is something wrong with that advertising."

Williams and Daynard have a point. Whether in the courtroom, or the court of public opinion, voluntarily limiting food advertising to children looks like an implicit admission of guilt. As a result, compromise would be self-defeating. Better to spend more money promoting the real evidence rather than making concessions to those who will continuously and incrementally move the goalposts.

Richard Berman is executive director for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers promoting personal responsibility.

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