Kids Ads Need Healthy Reform

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Childhood obesity concerns are no passing policy fad.

Surgeon General Richard Carmona predicts that obesity will displace tobacco use as the No. 1 threat to the nation’s health in less than a decade if current patterns persist. No one has yet begun to advocate a ban on “junk food” ads in children’s shows, but the stakes are clearly high in this realm for food marketers, broadcasters and, most importantly, the nation’s youth.

The TV industry’s answer: Get kids to exercise more. Nickelodeon runs PSAs and sponsors an annual Worldwide Day of Play. Cartoon Network has “Rescuing Recess,” which raises funds for schoolyard equipment. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual, with TV happily pocketing its share of the estimated $10 billion annually that food marketers spend on kids ads. But more must change if the TV industry wants to avoid risk to this ample revenue source. Here’s why.

Obesity results from an imbalance between the calories consumed and the energy expended in support of one’s physical activities. It would be convenient for food companies (and the television industry) if problems could be solved simply by increasing exercise levels. Profits aren’t endangered. But data in the recent National Academy of Sciences report suggest that exposure to TV food ads is as big a factor as lack of exercise in contributing to childhood obesity.

Several studies confirm the link between TV and childhood obesity still persists when researchers remove the influence of each person’s level of exercise from the equation. The evidence is growing that “junk food” ads play a significant role in this growing crisis.

That’s no surprise. Kids see tens of thousands of ads each year. Studies show that 90% of food ads on kids shows are for products that cannot be consumed regularly in a healthy diet. Sugared cereals, candies, sodas and fast foods are the staples of advertising to children.

That’s got to change, and soon, regardless of how many kids can be compelled to jump up off the couch and play harder.

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