Obese Kids: Time for Media to Act

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The current childhood obesity epidemic is a stark but preventable phenomenon. One in three children is overweight in America today. This puts our country on a predictable trajectory leading to millions of overweight adults unless urgent steps are taken.

Based on the Federal Trade Commission's recent announcement that $1.6 billion was spent by food and beverage companies in 2006 to market products to children and teenagers, the issue of advertising to children isn't going away. Nor is the use or influence of licensed characters by media companies in the cross-promotion of food and beverage products.

Many of the findings in the timely FTC report were the subject of discussions starting back in March 2007, when Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) joined leaders of the FCC, including Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioners Deborah Tate and Michael Copps, to form a multi-sector, bipartisan media and childhood obesity task force.

The task force was tapped to identify voluntary measures to address the role of media in the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. The senators and the FCC stimulated a long-overdue conversation about how media might play a more responsible, positive role in guiding children's healthy food choices. As the chief facilitator, I was honored to help move the process forward.

Leaders representing food and beverage manufacturers, advertising associations and major media networks worked alongside child advocates and health experts including pediatricians and nutritionists. The deliberations examined a cross-section of key issues: Can children's health become part of the corporate bottom line? What is nutritional balance? How can media messages support parents' efforts? And how can we determine and encourage accurate scientific evidence on the impact of advertising on children's health?

The process unleashed a vigorous and often contentious debate. It also provided a forum for parties to listen and learn from each other.

The FTC report, and the joint task force, identified central issues that must be resolved to attack the public health crisis, and to reassure parents who are raising our nation's next generation. A consensus must be elicited to determine how and whether to develop uniform nutritional standards for product advertising, or to define “healthy” food for kids.

Questions also linger on how to address the use of licensed characters and media companies' accountability in the process. Children's advocates and health professionals will likely soon urge Congress to find other ways to influence advertising in their interpretation of the public interest. Industry will understandably fight any regulation that may provide constraints on the advertising and promotion of products. Common ground must be sought between these positions, starting now.

As the head of a nonprofit media company with science-based nutritional guidelines for any food product our brand is associated with, I continue to urge our industry counterparts to play a stronger role in establishing and supporting advertisements that will positively influence children's healthy habits for life.

This isn't a bottom-line question, but rather how we can help participate in the process to improve children's health and the viability of the next generation. All of the blame cannot be placed on the food and beverage industry; media companies also shoulder some of the responsibility, and it is simply good business for us to do our part.

When an issue that represents a classic collision between free markets, free choice and public health can be addressed collaboratively, even if action remains incomplete and tentative, it is a moment worth noting. Despite fundamental differences, a productive dialogue among the companies and public advocates has been started. I am hopeful that with continued pressure on the issue, meaningful progress can be made. The FTC's report, notably its call to action for media and entertainment companies, reaffirms this pressure. Now all relevant parties should consider how far they are willing to go in becoming part of the solution. The stakes are simply too high should self-regulation fail.