Brownback, Martin Push Collegial Anti-Obesity Effort

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As advertised, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) Wednesday unveiled a new joint task force on the media and childhood obesity, saying his goal was to work with industry to help combat the issue, to join hands rather than point fingers.

With Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate at his side, Brownback said he wanted to bring together "industry, government, and advocacy organizations to combat the rising tide of childhood obesity." He pointed to a pie chart "no pun intended," he added, to illustrate the "direct and profound" impact of targeted marketing of candy, cereal, soda, and fast food.

Brownback said the idea had come from a conference he spoke at with private and public sector representatives where "everybody was saying 'yes we know we have a problem, what do we do?' And industry people in particular were saying 'we want to be part of the solution, not an ongoing problem.'"

Brownback said that the task force would not just look at the industry, but at parents and "the role the federal government has in stemming this crisis. He said that if different sectors did not come together, they would all be responsible for the ongoing harm to children from the obesity problem.

Though Brownback invoked tobacco marketing restrictions, he bristled at the suggestion that the end product of the task force, which will begin its work early in 2007 and result in an FCC report, could include a ban on any food advertising. Asked whether food ad restrictions were a possibility, he said he was "certainly not at that point today," saying industry efforts with government guidance "is the right step at this point."

When asked by B&C whether a ban was possible, he said: "You're way down the road." But still on the road? "No, I don't want to broadcast that or say that. I think if we want to start an adversarial relationship at the very outset, that would be the way to do it. We want these companies to participate. We don't want them to come to the table with the notion that now that we have them in the room we're going to take a hammer to them."

"It would be my hope," he said, "that we would get a number of private companies who are paying for the advertising engaged with people in the scientific community saying, 'OK, we want to advertise this set of products, and the public entities say, 'Yes, but, let's advertise it this way, or can you reduce the fat content of this one or encourage exercise when you are doing this."

Brownback said that the big food companies had been contacting his office, but were still trying to decide "whether this was a process they could join. We urge their participation and would love to have them."

He called it a "business-to-business" model, "relying on the task force members to implement innovative programs within their industries, generated from discussions rather than federally, heavy-handed mandates."

Martin seconded that sentiment, saying the goal was not to come up with an FCC inquiry at the end of the day, but to avoid regulation by coming up with industry solutions. Martin said the research linking childhood obesity with media and advertising "troubles me as a parent and as a commissioner of the FCC."

While the effort was billed as bipartisan, there were some prominent Democratic voices on the issue of childhood obesity not participating, including Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the latter arguably Congress' most vocal critic of food marketing practices.

Brownback said he had not contacted Harkin about the task force, but that he had also not talked to any of his other colleagues "Republican or Democrat," but that he welcomed input from interested parties and he would "reach out" to both sides of the aisle. Martin seconded that sentiment, too.

Those could include also Hillary Clinton, who pushed through a bill--though it has yet to be funded--that would create a long-term study of media impact on kids.

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