Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Self-regulation of food marketing to children

Food and beverage industry self-regulation is commonly seen as mere window dressing for doing nothing about intense food and beverage marketing to children in the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity.

Yet, many economists support government interventions to address the problem only if they are narrowly tailored to solve "market failures" -- situations where the market system fails to serve the public interest. If the market's own response suffices, it may be preferable to the government response.

And, many legal experts like restrictions on advertising only if the restrictions are narrowly tailored to be "no more extensive than necessary."

Of course, companies themselves prefer self-regulation.

With these multiple sources of support, the federal government has determined to attempt a period of self-regulation.

The questions that interest me most are: (1) how will this period of self-regulation be evaluated?; and (2) if the self-regulation fails, will the economists and legal experts follow the logic of their own arguments and support a stronger government response?

My longer version of this discussion has just been published in Nutrition Reviews (contact me by email if your library lacks access).


Anonymous said...

A big problem with the movement to regulate food and beverage marketing is that it's not as much fact-based as aesthetics-based. That's why there's always an emphasis on soda when fruit juices are objectively as bad or worse for kids. I've never heard of anyone wanting to ban Tropicana commercials, but everyone is up in arms about Coke and Pepsi.

Doing a quick search in Nutrition Data, orange juice from concentrate has about 44 calories per 100g, while your avergage cola has 37 calories per 100g.

So, my question is: will the juice industry be regulated, too?

Of course, one of the ironies is that while the fast food industry has most of the onus put on them, we have school lunches of corndogs, sloppy joes, etc, that are certainly no better than a McDonald's cheeseburger.

And none of this really approaches the biggest problem: we are sedentary society where we eat too much, sit in front of computers, watch TV, play video games, and snack.

I've known many people who eat worse than me who are skinnier. But they all do either one of two things: are really active or eat less.

The movement to regulate marketing to children is pissing in the ocean. The word gets around fast what tastes good and what kids want. It will just give a further edge to established brands. Meanwhile, there will have been a lot of effort, dollars, and political capital spent on something that will make a minimal difference. Politicians will instead use this an example of how they've done something on the issue of childhood obesity, meanwhile anything truly effective will be pushed aside because they will already have "proven" that they care about kids.

The things that matter are much more difficult: getting parents to take responsibility for their childrens' diets and activities, identifying children more at risk for obesity and paying special attention to them, changing our tastes as a culture and in sub-cultures, teaching people how to make healthy food that's cheaper or as cheap as fast food, tastier than junk food, and that's still relatively convenient to make and eat.

usfoodpolicy said...

Hi extramsg. I want to press back on a couple of your (always welcome and appreciated) observations. But, to decide how to respond, it would help to understand your view on a couple of the key questions in this debate.

1. Do you believe the energetic advertising of low-nutrition food and beverages is harmless for children's nutrition?

2. Or, do you believe it is harmful, but nothing can be done about it?

3. Or, do you believe it is harmful, but instructing parents on how to be better parents is an adequate solution, making changes to marketing practices unnecessary?

4. Or, do you believe changes to marketing practices are necessary, but self-regulation will suffice to bring it?

Anonymous said...

None of the above?

I don't believe it's harmful. I believe it's influential. There's a difference. Can it influence kids to make harmful choices or help build tastes that are less desireable from a societal standpoint? Yes. But I don't think it's a primary factor in childhood obesity and instead acts as something to misdirect efforts on the part of activists and politicians.

I know the response to my criticism is usually to say that doing something with even a small positive effect is still a net positive effect, but I think that's false. There are opportunity costs to any legislative or regulatory effort. Time, money, resources, and political capital gets spent on these sorts of things, meaning it's not available for other things that might be more effective.

I think marketing to children gets attention because it's relatively easy and for most people and politicians, it makes them feel like they've done something meaningful, when, like I said, they've only pissed in the ocean.

usfoodpolicy said...

Hi extramsg. I hear you being careful not to belittle the impact of marketing. You say the marketing can "influence kids to make harmful choices or help build tastes that are less desirable from a societal standpoint."

Yet, you don't put in a good word for anybody doing anything about it -- neither through self-regulation nor government initiative.

I won't try to talk you into supporting a particular response. I'll just let the question sit and ferment: are you satisfied with the response you advocate to the problem as you describe it?

Here is a passage from the article describing the new high-quality research on the extent of children's food advertising exposure: "A study published in 2007 by FTC staff used proprietary Nielsen data collected in 2004 from electronic boxes on televisions in the homes of a nationally representative sample of households.... Children ages 2–11 years watched 25,600 advertisements on average in 2004, of which 5500 – or 15 per day – were for food or beverages.... The leading categories of food advertising seen by children were for restaurants and fast food, cereals (of which 84% of ads were for sweetened cereal), and desserts and sweets (of which 52% of ads were for candy). The FTC researchers reported that in 2004 children in the United States saw, on average, 1400 advertisements for fast food and restaurants; 132 advertisements for beer, wine, and mixers; 16 advertisements for vegetables and legumes; and 0 advertisements for fresh fruit."

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