- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Junk food is the most widely advertised product on television programs watched by children, according to a study released yesterday.

More than a third of commercials targeting children or adolescents are for candy and snacks — often high-fat, sugary foods that are likely to fuel the ongoing childhood obesity epidemic, says the study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the largest of its kind.

“The study indicates that food marketing is a predominant part of the television advertising landscape for children, and that young people’s exposure to such messages is substantial, while their exposure to countervailing health messages on television is minimal,” according to the study.

Children 8 to 12 years old watch the most food commercials, averaging 21 ads daily, according to the findings. That adds up to 7,600 a year, or nearly 51 hours annually. Teens 13 to 17 years of age see 17 food ads daily, or more than 6,000 a year, while children 2 to 7 years of age view 12 foods ads a day, or 4,400 yearly.

Children influence about $500 billion in annual spending on products such as cereal, candy and fast food, a separate National Health Examination survey found.

The issue of advertising food to children has come under scrutiny as the number of obese children continues to rise at an alarming rate. According to the health examination survey, the percentage of overweight children has jumped from 5 percent to 16 percent the past 40 years.

And U.S. companies spend $15 billion a year marketing and advertising to children younger than 12, twice the amount spent 10 years ago.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care policy resource organization in the District, produced the study, which evaluated advertisements to children from 13 networks in 2005, including all genres of programming viewed by children. The study examined 30 times more television programming than previous studies.

The foundation touts the study as the largest ever conducted of television food advertising to children because it accounts for cable and commercial-free networks, such as PBS.

Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, recently convened a task force to examine current trends in media and the potential effects on obesity rates. The group includes food companies such as Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola Co. and General Mills, and proponents of curtailing the ad blitz — the American Society for Nutrition and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mr. Brownback, a conservative who is not often linked with advocating enhanced government oversight over business, said that while he hopes the task force will come up with effective recommendations to slow the rising obesity rate in children, he did not take government intervention off the table.

“What I believe is that if there is not an improvement in the number of obese children and advertisers don’t step up and advertise more healthy, then you’ll see the regulatory framework move forward,” Mr. Brownback said.

With the task force’s recommendations, which are slated to be released by the end of the summer, the food industry is hoping to avoid government regulation through self-policing. Last year, many high-profile food companies advertising to children — including Burger King, Pepsi Co. and General Mills — pledged to devote at least half of all advertising directed to children younger than 12 to promoting healthier diet choices.

Dan Jaffe, vice president of government affairs for the Association of National Advertisers, lauded the industry’s self-regulatory approach and disputed the Kaiser Family Foundation’s study because it used 2005 data. Mr. Jaffe said food companies are spending $270 million on public-service announcements for healthy eating.

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