Pediatricians Want Stricter Controls on Junk Food Ads

Children grow up surrounded by advertising, from breakfast cereal ads on Saturday morning cartoons to pop-up ads on the Internet. Kids see and hear so many ads in a given day that some medical experts now fear for their health.

Taking a stand on the issue, the American Academy of Pediatrics' Communication Committee has issued a statement, warning that this steady bombardment of commercial messages may be contributing to obesity, poor nutrition and cigarette and alcohol use among U.S. youth.

However, the pediatricians stopped short of recommending an outright ban on junk-food advertising similar to thr prohibition issued last month by the British Office of Communications, the quasi-governmental agency that has statutory authority to regulate television, telecom, and other communications industries in the United Kingdom. It recently decreed that junk-food marketers will be prohibited from advertising on programming aimed at kids under 16.

"We have to understand that youngsters under a certain age cannot differentiate between a commercial and a program. To them, it's real. There should be some effort on the part of parents to point out that this is a commercial," said Dr, Donald Shifrin, chairman of the AAP Communications Committee.

The committee statement estimates American children have viewed 360 000 advertisements on television before graduating from high school. Additional exposures include ads on the radio, in print media, on public transportation, and billboards. The statement expresses concern that commercials have even entered the classroom through programs like Channel One-video equipment packaged with current events programming that contains commercials.

The group says there have been numerous studies documenting that young children under 8 years of age developmentally are unable to understand the intent of advertisements and, in fact, accept advertising claims as true. In addition, it says advertisers have become adept at circumventing rules and minimizing warnings.

"For example, the disclaimers 'some assembly required' or 'when eaten as part of a complete nutritional breakfast' are spoken rapidly by the announcer or shown in small print, and are not understood by most children," the statement said.

The committee stopped short of suggesting a ban on advertising directed at children under age 8, noting that it is difficult to sequester a TV audience by age. However, the group called for a number of changes in the way products are advertised.

1. All toy-based programs (as defined by the FCC), since they truly represent commercials for products, should be regulated by the FCC.

2. There should be stricter enforcement of existing regulations that define the nature and content of educational programs. Strict and heavy fines should be imposed when such violations are proved.

3. There should be stricter limitations on the amount of advertising permitted on children's television (eg, no more than 5 to 6 commercial minutes per hour on weekday or weekend programming). This would decrease the current limits by approximately 50%.

4. There should be increased funding of the Children's Television Endowment Fund. Funds should be used to underwrite the production of high-quality, educational programming for children. This programming could be broadcast on either current public broadcasting systems or a new commercial-free public station for children. This fund should be augmented by a new 10% surcharge on advertisers who target children and adolescents.

5. There should be a ban on all tobacco and alcohol advertising in all media. This ban should include all "passive" advertising in sponsored sports events (ie, banners, logos, etc).

6. PSAs dealing with AIDS should emphasize the use of condoms as well as benefits of abstinence for adolescents. Broadcast of advertising for condoms and other birth control products should also be increased through commercial channels targeted to adolescents and young adults, including cable.

7. "Anti-drug" PSAs should receive more prominent airing during prime time hours. Drug-related counter-advertising should target cigarettes and alcohol, in addition to marijuana and cocaine.

8. Funding should be increased to continue the study of the effects of television and other media on behaviors of children and adolescents.

9. Parents must educate children to be responsible and informed consumers. A variety of resources should be developed to help parents teach children that commercials are designed to sell products. These resources should be made available to parents through schools, libraries, and pediatricians' offices. School-based curricula that teach children and adolescents media literacy should be developed and disseminated.

10. Parents, interested groups, committees of the Academy (nationally and locally), and pediatricians should monitor local television broadcasts to ensure adherence to existing limits on commercial time. There must be stronger support for strict FCC monitoring of local television stations' adherence to the Children's Television Act of 1990.

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