December 6, 2005
A government report accuses food marketers of using billions in marketing dollars to lure children away from good diet choices. The Institute of Medicine report is billed as "the most comprehensive review" of existing scientific studies and could be a watershed similar to the 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking.

Television advertising strongly influences what children under 12 eat and the food industry should spend its marketing dollars on nutritious food and drinks, and if voluntary efforts don't work, Congress should take action, the report said.

"The foods advertised are predominantly high in calories and low in nutrition -- the sort of diet that puts children's long-term health at risk," said J. Michael McGinnis, a senior scholar at the institute and chairman of the report committee.

Marketing and food industry officials called the report a "flawed study" and disputed its conclusions. But the findings came as no surprise to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who requested the report.

"We like to think that SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek and the pretty little princesses are likable, kid-friendly characters, but they're being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices," said Mr. Harkin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. "The industry must stop pushing junk food on our kids."

"Ample information and studies [indicate] that television advertising influences the food preferences, purchase requests and diets at least of children under 12 and is associated with the increased rates of obesity among children and youth," the report charges.

"The Institute of Medicine's report on food marketing to children is a milestone that marks the beginning of the end of junk-food marketing to kids," said Margo G. Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The report sends a clear signal to food company executives and advertisers that the industry needs to completely rethink the way they do business."

"Lawmakers should look at the IOM report as a roadmap to help improve kids' diets and address childhood obesity," she said.

"Getting junk food out of schools, promoting fruits and vegetables, putting nutrition info on chain restaurant menus, and scrutinizing food ads on children's television programming are four things Congress could consider right now to advance the IOM's recommendations," Wootan said.

The report urges the food industry to work voluntarily with the government to forge "an agenda to turn beverage and marketing toward better diets." But if such action doesn't yield substantial results within two years, the report calls for legislative action.

Industry executives contend the report fails to take into account recent changes in food marketing, is based on no new research, and doesn't explain how food marketing can be a culprit in childhood obesity even as food ads aimed at children are declining while obesity rates among children continues to rise.

The advertising industry was quick to react.

"It's an enormously radical proposal that if the advertising is not adequately balanced, the government will step in to force the desired balance. How would that be determined? Based on what? Who would be deciding what is and isn't balance, what foods are good and which aren't and based on what?" he told Advertising Age.

Such arguments were ignited by the Surgeon General's report on tobacco as well. But, like it or not, Joe Camel and other tobacco-licensed characters were pulled off the street and put into rehab programs as a result of the landmark report.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said its members have already taken steps to implement many of the report's recommendations. "The marketplace is already responding and legislation is costly, complicated and really not necessary," said Richard Martin, a GMA spokesman.