Obesity Issues Heat Up on the Hill

  • Rising rates of obesity in children present the United States and countries around the globe with an international challenge to adopt policies and programs designed to help children and their parents to eat better and to adopt healthier lifestyles. Food manufacturers and the advertising industry have stepped up to the challenge and are applying multiple resources to help turn around rising childhood obesity rates. Nevertheless, a number of advocacy groups are urging the U.S. Congress and government agencies to impose strict standards on the advertising of food products to children.
  • Advertisers of food products with a significant children's audience have rarely faced such a complex political issue. The advertising industry faces the new 110th Congress with a Democratic majority that may seek more government involvement in the regulation of food advertising.
  • One leading Senate Democrat, who soon will become Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and of a powerful Appropriations Subcommittee, has conducted a focused campaign on strengthening the regulatory authority of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over children's advertising. Ofcom, the British counterpart to our U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has proposed the virtual elimination of ads for certain food products to children under 16 years of age. A U.S. FCC Commissioner, the FCC Chairman, and a U.S. Senator have proposed a new national dialogue on children's advertising. And a group of the nation's leading advertisers have recommended an overhaul in the selfregulatory guidelines for children's food advertising after the Chairman of the FTC hinted at possible federal action if industry did not strengthen its program for self-regulation.
  • In the United States, advertising is regulated by the FTC, but the Chairman of the FCC Kevin Martin and FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate have entered this debate and have joined U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) to create a new task force with the objective of enlarging the national debate on how the government and the private sector should tackle the childhood obesity issue. The task force, "Media and Childhood Obesity: Today and Tomorrow," plans to hold hearings throughout 2007 and then work on a report of its findings and recommendations. Senator Brownback said he wanted to bring together "industry, government, and advocacy organizations to combat the rising tide of childhood obesity."
  • Over the past several years, a variety of trade associations and other entities have been stepping up to the challenge and have been applying resources to institute selfpolicing measures for the industry. POPAI is an important part of the advertising and food manufacturing industry efforts to address the issue of childhood obesity. POPAI is a member of the Alliance for American Advertising, a coalition of advertising and food manufacturing associations and companies that are working to communicate to the Congress and to federal agencies the great progress that companies recently have made in the development of new and improved food products for children and the improvements that are planned for advertising those products.
  • In the past three years, food manufacturers that belong to the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) have introduced 4500 new or reformulated products with improved nutrition, included reduced saturated and trans fats, reduced calories, less sugar, and less sodium. Food manufacturers also have made it easier for parents and children to establish portion control by developing single serve and kid-friendly sizes for more than 600 products. They also have adopted labeling for packages and promotions that highlight "healthier- for-you" and "better-for-you" products.
  • Many advertisers and advertising agencies have joined with the Ad Council in the Coalition for Healthy Children to apply the collective strengths of marketers, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and government agencies to address the obesity crisis. The Ad Council is financially supported by many national advertisers and is able to reach an audience for its public service ads through the free space and time provided by the nation's newspaper and magazine publishers and television and radio broadcasters. The Ad Council has worked with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop the "Small Steps" campaign to urge American adults and children to exercise more and to eat healthy. Currently, the Ad Council is developing a media literacy campaign to help young people better interpret the advertising they see.
  • Nonetheless, there will be even greater pressure on advertising in the U.S. following the release of the Ofcom proposal in the United Kingdom. "Television and Radio Advertising of Food Products to Children," announced November 17, 2006, calls for a virtual ban on advertising of food products that contain combinations of sugar, salt, and fat ingredients (HFSS) that exceed its nutrient limits.
  • The ban would apply at all times of day and night and on all channels, during or adjacent to programs that have "particular appeal" to children under 16. Restrictions will apply to:
  • Pre-school children's programs
  • Programming in children's airtime on commercial public service channels
  • Cable and satellite children's channels
  • Adult programs that attract a significantly higher than average proportion of viewers under the age of 16, as well as youth oriented programming

Ofcom also has proposed that advertisements that promote HFSS food and drinks to primary school children be prohibited from using licensed third-party celebrities or characters, barred from using promotional activities targeted at primary children, and barred from making nutritional or health claims in television advertisements.


While the shift if the majority may generate more attention to this issue, the concern in Congress over rising obesity rates is bipartisan. It was House Government Reform Subcommittee Chairman Dan Burton (R-IN), who two years ago directed sharply critical comments to witnesses in a hearing on obesity at advertisements of food products.

The Human Rights and Wellness Subcommittee Chairman charged that the "food industry should sell products that won't kill us." Burton said he wanted USDA to identify food products that contain too much fat, salt, and sugar so USDA/HHS can educate the public about which foods would meet this as of yet undetermined nutritional standard.

Chairman Burton interrupted a witness for the Grocery Manufacturers of America who was explaining the industry's program for self-regulation of advertising food products to children that is directed by the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU). Burton said, "CARU ain't working as kids are getting fatter every day, and the incidence of diabetes among children is skyrocketing."

A year later the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Committee jointly sponsored a two-day workshop on "Marketing, Self-Regulation & Childhood Obesity." In her comments to the Workshop attendees, FTC Chairman Deborah Majoras said: "...a government ban on children's food advertising is neither wise nor viable...[yet it] would be...equally unwise for industry to maintain the status quo...if industry fails to demonstrate good faith and to take positive steps, others may act in its stead."

One of the leading critics of food marketing to children will become Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in the 110th Congress that convenes in January. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has in the past added funding to appropriations bills that were used to fund two studies critical of children's food advertising conducted by the Institutes of Medicine for the Centers for Disease Control. Those studies have been quoted by a number of food advertising critics, and Senator Harkin has used them to help justify his legislation to give the FTC greater regulatory authority to issue restrictive rules for children's advertising. In addition to chairing the Agriculture Committee, Senator Harkin also will chair the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that provides funding to the Department of Health and Human Services.


More recently, the food manufacturing and advertising industries have more aggressively responded to the multiple concerns voiced by Congress and federal regulators. A number of companies that provide support for the operation of CARU have produced an agreement on a number of measures to strengthen the principles used to evaluate and recommend changes in children's food advertising. The CARU Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative is a voluntary self-regulation program involving 10 of the largest food and beverage companies as charter participants. The participants have pledged to:

  • Devote at least half their advertising directed to children on television, radio, print, and Internet to encourage healthier dietary choices and/or healthy lifestyles.
  • Limit products shown in interactive games to healthier dietary choices, or incorporate healthy lifestyle messages into the games.
  • Not advertise food or beverage products in elementary schools.
  • Not engage in food and beverage product placement in editorial and entertainment content. Reduce the use of third-party licensed characters in advertising that does not meet the Initiative's product or messaging criteria. The revised CARU advertising guidelines have been expanded to:
  • Provide new authorization for CARU to take action on advertising targeted to children that is "unfair," in addition to advertising that is misleading.
  • Specifically address "blurring," or advertising that obscures the line between editorial content and advertising messages. A new provision, which applies across all media, prohibits advertising that "blurs the distinction between advertising and program/ editorial content in ways that would be misleading to children."
  • Specifically address the use of commercial messages in interactive games, sometimes referred to as advergaming. The revised guidelines require that, "if an advertiser integrates a commercial message into the content of a game or activity, then the advertiser should make clear, in a manner that will be easily understood by the targeted audience, that it is an advertisement."

FTC Chairman Deborah Majoras has said repeatedly that her agency strongly favors industry self-regulation as opposed to further government restrictions on advertising. The proposals announced by the Initiative, and the multiple efforts to improve food products and advertising that have been launched by the advertising and food manufacturing industries, represent important programs that can make a pronounced contribution to reducing childhood obesity in this country.