Weight Watchers


Obesity is the leading public-health problem in the U.S. And that's not us talking. It's the conclusion of the surgeon general, who said so in a speech earlier this year. Again last week, a new study ordered by Congress concluded, among other things, that childhood obesity was a serious enough health threat for the government to require advertisers to change the way they pitch products to kids (see related story, page 7). They suggested that Congress wait two years to give the advertising and food industries time to voluntarily fix the problem. After that, they said, Washington should act.

We admit that many television ads celebrate gluttony. But TV is hardly the only culprit adding flab to the national waistline. There are many changes that must occur before we start trimming down as a nation. Frankly, while we acknowledge that TV has a role in the problem, it gets tedious when television, the national babysitter, also doubles as the national blame-catcher. There is a quaint but fairly forgotten notion that parents and teachers and non-media corporations also have responsibilities.

Kids are too sedentary, thanks to TV, yes, but also because of videogames and even the heavy schedule of school work that kids or their parents think will get them into the best private high schools or colleges.

The obesity problem is hard to miss (and unintended puns difficult to avoid). The good news is that the vast majority of children are healthy. The bad news is that 15% are overweight or obese. That is 9 million too many. Our kids eat horribly, but then, so do most of us. A 2000 beverage-industry study bragged that the average American consumes 53 gallons of soft drinks a year. Twenty-five years ago, kids drank twice as much milk as they did soda. Today, the statistics are exactly the opposite.

As a nation, almost two-thirds of us are overweight and obese, which puts us at increased risk for cancer and diabetes and the nation's top killer, heart disease.

As advertisers conceded last week, TV commercials do influence purchasing decisions. Otherwise, why would they spend billions on them annually? As they also pointed out, in the past three years, the advertising and food industries have taken steps to promote healthy eating habits and exercise. Marketers will seize opportunities to sell their legal products that do no harm in moderation. We don't blame them. That is their legal business. And food is not tobacco.

But as good corporate stewards and wise businessfolk, marketers must also increase their efforts. They must take care not to wield their marketing power without sufficient regard for the ability of their audience to distinguish between a program and a plug. We don't think it's the government's role to start mandating the ad budgets for carrots and cupcakes. But an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.