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Time to Stop Marketing Food to Kids

It's time we stopped fretting over nutrition standards for marketing to kids and start working on a new strategy to eliminate all food marketing to young children, period.
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I recently gave several talks at the American Public Health Association conference, an annual gathering of some 12,000 enthusiastic public health professionals. In years past, not many presentations (other than my own) focused on the role of corporations to harm the public's health. I am happy to report this is changing, as numerous panels struck such a theme. The following is a summary of my talk on the recent failed attempt by the federal government to rein in junk food marketing to children, and why it's time to set a new and much bolder course to fix this problem.

That the food industry has zero interest children's health was made painfully clear last year. Four federal agencies -- led by the Federal Trade Commission -- came together to make recommendations on food marketing to children. The idea was to improve the food industry's current self-serving, hodge-podge system of nutrition standards and recommend science-based, uniform, industry-wide guidelines instead. Numerous studies have demonstrated industry's approach to be a dismal failure. But still, there was never to be regulations, simply a report to Congress recommending better voluntary standards, as this blog post from FTC explained. But two years later, Congress brought the effort to a screeching halt, thanks to huge outcry from the food, advertising, and media industries.

In an all-out assault, industry argued that the proposed standards were so strict hardly anything could be marketed to kids. (Wasn't that the idea?) They also claimed that the standards would result in a loss of 74,000 jobs, which was later soundly debunked. (These same companies argue that regulating junk food marketing to children is ineffective; but never mind.) But the true chutzpah award goes to General Mills, which said that the federal proposal would result in an increased demand for fruits and vegetables that would require massive imports. If you don't believe me, see page 73 of the 109 pages of comments submitted to the FTC, where they conclude: "The cost of feeding the American population would skyrocket, and American agricultural producers would suffer devastating losses at the hands of foreign imports." Okay.

Finally, industry argued that the federal recommendations would violate the First Amendment's free speech clause. Did I mention there was never to be any actual regulation, law, or policy required? How could a report violate free speech rights? It can't, of course, as this letter signed by numerous First Amendment scholars so eloquently argued. But logic has never been a prerequisite to industry spin.

Then last December, while we were waiting for the final report from the Federal Trade Commission, Congress snuck language into the massive budget bill requiring a cost-benefit analysis prior to finalizing the recommendations. (The White House often misuses this concept to delay all sorts of regulations for political reasons.) Of course cost-benefit makes no sense here, since the report was voluntary. How could the FTC possibly conduct such a study? Moreover, legally, FTC is an "independent agency" that cannot even be subject so such a requirement by the White House. But no matter, industry doesn't need the law or logic on their side, just good friends in Congress.

And where was the first lady and her Let's Move program during the melee? Or for that matter, her husband? Neither wing of the White House lifted a finger to support the effort at any time. (This in-depth Reuters report from April explains the ugly politics there.) No wonder Congress could easily get away with scuttling the entire effort.

So what are the lessons to be learned from this failure? That's it's time we stopped fretting over nutrition standards for marketing to kids and start working on a new strategy to eliminate all food marketing to young children, period. It's time to tell the truth and stop dancing around the issue: that it's immoral and unethical to exploit young children's emotional vulnerabilities. This is what McDonald's is doing when it targets children as young as age 2, and it doesn't matter if it's Happy Meals or spinach.

Young children -- under the age of 12 -- do not have the cognitive capacity to even understand how marketing works, so such "free speech" should not enjoy First Amendment protection. Under consumer protection law, deceptive marketing is not based on the health the product in question. It's simply illegal. So why would it matter how many grams of sugar Lucky Charms contains?

The effort to set nutrition guidelines on marketing to children is doomed to failure because it keeps the food industry in charge. Food corporations are happy to have voluntary nutrition guidelines for marketing to children because it provides a handy public relations tool to keep policy-makers mollified and distract away from the fundamental moral issue. And even government-enforced nutrition standards for kids' marketing would not work. From a practical standpoint, it's impossible to oversee and enforce. But more importantly, it's wrong legally and morally and sets a terrible precedent. We simply have to stand up for what's right.

What we need now is a political movement in this country to forge this new direction. We can build a strong coalition of groups, including the American Public Health Association and many others to demand accountability from the President and newly elected Congress, which now includes a few more progressive members. It's time to tell the junk food industry: enough is enough, stop exploiting our kids.

This post originally appeared at Corporate Accountability International.