Scientists suggest need for ad limits

Report criticizes marketing junk food to kids


CHICAGO -- The nation's premier science organization urged Congress yesterday to consider restricting the marketing of junk food to children if food companies do not cut back on their own, upping the stakes in the national obesity debate.

The new report by the National Academy of Sciences is considered the most authoritative review to date of how junk food ads and marketing threaten the health of young children.

To help reverse that influence, the report recommends that food companies stop targeting kids with "spokescharacters," such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Barbie dolls, to promote foods high in calories and low in nutrients.

Some food companies already have begun shifting their children's advertising to healthier fare. But the new report's call for government to consider additional regulation incensed advertising groups, which believe companies should be free to market to children so long as their ads are not misleading.

The study authors, including experts in psychology, nutrition, law and education, said the standards for advertising must be higher for young children.

Studies have not proved conclusively that junk food marketing leads to childhood obesity, the authors conceded. The evidence does show that advertising causes children to eat more high-calorie foods and that television viewing in general is linked with weight problems among children and teens.

"Current marketing practices are putting the diet-related health of children and youth in this country at great risk," said co-author Mary Story, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.

But if companies agree to market healthier foods, she said, "we feel that the food industry and food marketing can play a vital role in turning this around."

The industry's marketing tactics have drawn more attention as public health experts raised the alarm about America's rising childhood obesity rates. A Chicago Tribune special report in August detailed more than a decade of marketing efforts at Northfield-based Kraft Inc. that targeted children with some of the company's most fattening foods.

Kraft has changed course in the past year, focusing on marketing its healthier offerings to children under age 12. Yet the company still uses some techniques that the NAS panel criticized, including Internet "advergames" that promote brands such as Oreo cookies.

The new report won praise from some industry groups and public health advocates.

Kraft spokesman Mark Berlind called the paper "an important milestone." Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and frequent industry critic, said the report is "a great compendium from a reliable source."

But the recommendations were ominous to Wally Snyder, CEO of the American Advertising Federation, a lobbying group whose 130 corporate members include food and beverage giants such as Kraft and PepsiCo. The group also represents numerous media companies, including Tribune Co.

Snyder pointed out that although the authors called for companies to focus their ads on healthier products, the report offered no clear definition of which products would qualify. Moreover, attempts by government to restrict how companies advertise could violate the Constitution's free speech protections, he said.

Jeremy Manier and Delroy Alexander write for the Chicago Tribune.

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