The federal government reiterated yesterday it will not ban food ads directed at children, as it holds a seminar this week on childhood obesity and food marketing.
“A government ban on children’s food advertising is neither wise nor viable,” Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said yesterday at the two-day event.
The agency, which regulates advertising, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hosted the seminar to examine how officials from the government, food industry and public health offices can curb the nation’s rising childhood obesity rate.
About 16 percent of U.S. children, aged 6 to 19, are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the last few years, health advocates and several federal lawmakers have called upon the FTC to step up its regulation of food ads.
They argued self-regulation does not protect youngsters from aggressive marketing of calorie-laden snacks and other junk food, which they say contributes to childhood obesity.
“Food advertising should not be undermining the lessons that responsible parents are teaching their children,” Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said at the event.
But Mrs. Majoras said self-regulation in the food industry would be the best approach. The FTC tried to ban advertising aimed at young children in the 1970s, but Congress overruled the measure.
“It would be, however, equally unwise for industry to maintain the status quo,” she said.
Among the proposals for self-regulation, a Washington trade group of 140 food companies plans to ask for more resources and staff for the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU).
CARU, a division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, acts as an independent watchdog of ads targeted at children. The group is funded by advertising companies and other corporate donors.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which also helps finance CARU, said the organization should have clearer rules, such as Internet marketing efforts such as “advergaming.”
Food manufacturers such as Kraft Foods Inc. and General Mills Inc. use “advergaming,” or interactive games on the company’s Web site, to promote their products to children.
A report released at the event yesterday showed that national television ads seen by children have dropped 14 percent in nearly 30 years.
Paid ads fell from 20,000 in 1977 to 17,507 in 2004, according to a study by Pauline Ippolito, associate director for the FTC’s economics bureau.
The report found national television ads for cereal, candy and toys dropped during the period while ads for entertainment, sweetened drinks and fast-food rose.
Advertising industry officials at the seminar said part of the reason for the decline has been a shift in children from watching television to using the Internet and playing video games.
Despite the decline of food ads on TV, changing children’s television viewing habits is one of the best strategies to prevent obesity, said Dr. William Dietz, director for the CDC’s nutrition and physical activity division.
“There is a linear relationship to the amount of television a child watches and the prevalence that he will be overweight,” Dr. Dietz said.
Health Care runs Fridays. Call Marguerite Higgins at 202/636-4892 or e-mail her at email@example.com.