Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled among adolescents and doubled among younger children, leading health experts to warn of a nationwide epidemic of chronic disease as today's children grow into adults.
But top government agencies aren't pushing the panic button. Instead, they've held a workshop and released a report.
The report released today by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) outlines "concrete steps" the food industry can take to make progress against childhood obesity. Both agencies said they will "monitor closely" food companies' response.
Consumer groups didn't disagree.
"Currently, virtually any food, no matter how nutritionally bankrupt, can be marketed to virtually any child, no matter how young," said Margo G. Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit nutrition advocacy group.
"Parents are fed up with their authority being subverted by junk-food marketers. The industry's self-regulation system in this area has clearly failed," she said.
Wootan said the FTC/HHS report made "welcome recommendations."
"Importantly, the agencies recommend that food companies and the industry-funded Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU, set baseline nutrition standards for foods that can be marketed to children through television, schools, and via cartoon characters on food packages," she said.
The report also included these recommendations for food companies:
intensify their efforts to create new products and reformulate existing products to make them lower in calories, more nutritious, more appealing to children, and more convenient to prepare and eat;
help consumers control portion sizes and calories through smaller portions, single-serving packages, and other packaging cues;
explore labeling initiatives, including icons and seals, to identify lower-calorie, nutritious foods clearly and in a manner that does not mislead consumers;
review and revise their marketing practices with the goal of improving the overall nutritional profile of the foods marketed to children, for example, by adopting minimum nutritional standards for the foods they market to children, or by otherwise shifting emphasis to lower-calorie, more nutritious products;
generally explore ways to improve efforts to educate consumers about nutrition and fitness, with simple and effective messages; and
review and revise their policies to improve the overall nutritional profile of the products they market and sell in schools.
In focusing on racial and ethnic populations in which childhood obesity is more prevalent, the agencies recommended that:
food companies make a concerted effort to include, as part of their marketing of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods, promotions that are tailored to these communities; and
food companies, the media, and entertainment companies tailor their outreach efforts to promote better nutrition and fitness to these populations. The agencies recommended that media and entertainment companies:
continue to develop and disseminate educational messages about nutrition and fitness that are simple, positive, and repeated consistently across various platforms, with broad participation from other stakeholders; and
review and revise their licensing of children's television and movie characters to foster promotion of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods.
The report noted that the current CARU Guides are a good foundation for industry self-regulation, but the agencies recommended that the Guides be expanded and their enforcement enhanced. Specific agency recommendations to be enacted right away included:
expanding the CARU advisory board to include additional individuals with expertise in the various fields related to childhood obesity, such as nutrition, children's health, and developmental psychology;
allowing parents and others to file complaints with CARU and make decisions more readily available to the public online; and
evaluating and determining whether CARU's staff and resources are sufficient to monitor and enforce adequately the CARU guides, in light of any changes made in response to the recommendations set forth in this report.
The report is a product of last summer's joint FTC/HHS workshop, which provided a forum for industry, consumer, academic, and government stakeholders to examine the role of the private sector in addressing rising childhood obesity rates in the United States.
"Workshop participants acknowledged that many factors contribute to childhood obesity, but recognized that regardless of the causes, responsible marketing can play a positive role in improving children's diets and exercise behavior," the FTC said in a press release.
"Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity," said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. "The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements."
"Businesses need to work with mothers, fathers and children to bring America's epidemic of childhood overweight under control," said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. "Families can help children to be physically active and to eat right, and business can encourage children to eat nutritious foods in proper portions."
The workshop focused on the role that the private sector, including food, media, and entertainment companies, can and should play to address the increasing problem of childhood obesity in the United States. Food companies presented their product, packaging, labeling, advertising, and marketing initiatives designed to promote lower calorie, more nutritious foods.
Media and entertainment companies discussed their incorporation of health and nutrition messages into programming and their support for public education campaigns featuring these messages.
Workshop participants provided their views on the advertising guidelines that are enforced by the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). Participants offered both praise and criticism of existing industry practices and self-regulatory efforts. Some also offered suggestions for ways that industry can build on current efforts and take new steps to tackle the childhood obesity problem.
The report summarizes the presentations, panel discussions, and oral statements made at the workshop and the written comments submitted. It also provides specific recommendations for action by the food industry, the media and entertainment industry, and CARU.