Dear Michelle Obama,
You will soon officially launch your “Let’s Move” Campaign to battle childhood obesity. Calling it an epidemic that threatens both America’s health and economy, you have identified 4 pillars that will be part of your Campaign:
1. Getting parents more informed about nutrition and exercise
2. Improving the quality of food in schools
3. Making healthy foods more affordable and accessible for families
4. Focusing more on physical education
These are certainly appropriate and laudable strategies. They may even have some impact in reducing the problem of childhood obesity. For instance, according to the USDA, over 16 million children lived in food insecure households in 2008. Making healthy food more affordable will make it more possible for these families use their limited food budgets on healthier foods. Similarly, focusing on more physical education may indeed reduce the extent to which physical education programs are being cut by schools at a time when school budgets are being drastically cut.
But, Mrs. Obama, these 4 pillars are doomed to failure if you do not add an essential 5th pillar to your Campaign, namely:
5. Curbing the power of corporations to market junk food to children
Licensed TV characters like SpongeBob SquarePants are often used to sell products to children. I am sure you know that marketing junk food to children is big business.
A 2008 Federal Trade Commission Report estimated that up to $10 billion was spent annually on advertising food and beverages to children. A 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that food is the top product advertised to children. Half of all ads shown during children’s programming are for food. And 34% of all food ads are for candy.
Is it any surprise that marketing junk food to children has risen dramatically since the Federal Trade Commission lost its power to regulate marketing to children, making the United States unique among industrialized countries in giving free-rein to marketers?
Marketers would not go to all this trouble and expense if they didn’t know what a huge impact their marketing has on children’s consuming and eating habits. And a 2006 Institute of Medicine review of research found strong evidence that food advertising on television influences children’s food preferences and diets. The review was especially critical of the practice of using licensed TV characters to promote junk food.
Mrs. Obama, you need to add Pillar 5 to your campaign. Please do not ignore what we know to be one of the greatest reasons why childhood obesity has increased to epidemic proportions in the past decade—just as the time children spend in front of a screen viewing ads has soared, as has the amount of money spent marketing junk food to them?
Please do not put the whole burden of solving the problem of childhood obesity on parents and schools at the same time that the single biggest factor that would help them do their job and promote the health of children is ignored?
If you really want have an impact on the epidemic of children obesity, it is time to give the Federal Trade Commission back its powers to regulate marketing to children. It is time to put protecting the interests of children and families above the greed of marketers.
Guest blogger Diane Levin is Professor of Education at Wheelock College in Boston and an internationally recognized expert on the impact of media and commercial culture on children. She is the author (with Jean Kilbourne) of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do To Protect Their Kids.