New regs would outlaw junk food ads in schools

The Obama administration proposed Tuesday to ban advertisements for unhealthy food in the country’s schools, targeting a $150 million per year industry that is nonetheless backing the plan. 

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Draft regulations unveiled Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reflect the latest phase of first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to combat a national childhood obesity crisis.

“Our classrooms should be healthy places where kids are not bombarded with ads for junk food,” Obama said Tuesday during an event at the White House.

She described the new guidelines as “part of a broader effort to inspire companies to rethink how they market food to kids in general.”

Obama pointed to statistics showing that the average child is exposed to thousands of food-related ads every year, with the vast majority for products full of sugar, fat and salt. By comparison, kids see an average of one ad for healthy alternatives every week, she said.

The rule proposed Tuesday would prohibit ads at schools on everything from vending machines to scoreboards for any food that can’t be sold on campuses.  The action follows the development of new school nutritional standards that are set to take effect in July.

“If you can’t sell it, you really ought not be able to market it,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

According to the Vilsack, the food industry spends roughly $149 million per year on marketing in schools, with 93 percent of that money promoting the marketing of beverages.

The draft regulations would require drink companies to promote their diet sodas or water, rather than full-calorie options.

The American Beverage Association (ABA)  — which represents brands including Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and Snapple — issued a statement Tuesday in support of the plan.

ABA president Susan Neely said voluntary standards developed by the industry have already removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools, slashing by 90 percent the total number of “beverage calories” available to students.

“Now, we look forward to working with the USDA on their proposed rule to align food and beverage signage in schools with the new regulations as the logical next step,” Neely said.

The White House said 38 percent of school districts already prohibit advertisements for unhealthy foods and fast food restaurants. The regulations, if enacted, would expand the ban to all 50 states.

The proposal was not wholly embraced by the food industry. Tom Dempsey, chief executive for the Snack Food Association, said Tuesday he had not yet had a chance to review all the details.

“There’s always concerns when people start defining good foods and bad foods,” Dempsey said.

Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate lauded the initiative.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) cited research linking the rise of childhood obesity and the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children.

“Today’s proposed rules from the USDA will help ensure that schools, of all places, are a safe haven from junk food marketing and will help students make sound nutritional choices — a tremendous step forward for combating childhood obesity,” Harkin said in a statement.

The move also won praise from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is pushing legislation to keep businesses from receiving tax deductions related to the marketing of unhealthy food to children.

“Although these new guidelines represent an important step, it is only a first step,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “We must continue to set policies that make it easier for children and families to make healthy choices.”

The proposed rule could affect as many as 21,000 local educational agencies and 105,000 schools operating in the United States, according to the Agriculture Department, which estimates that the administrative costs of imposing the regulations would be as low as $48 per school per year.

The administration conceded that the new marketing limitations would also affect vending machine operators and marketing companies. But the new in-school nutrition standards taking effect this year would have already prompted a shift in marketing strategies, the administration contends in a notice to be published in the Federal Register.

“Because of the changes in products available in schools due to the Smart Snacks in Schools interim rule, we believe that much of that change will already have occurred, but there may still be some labor costs associated with changing the marketing campaigns,” the notice reads.

The USDA is holding a 60-day public comment period to gather feedback before issuing final regulations.

At the same time, the first lady is crisscrossing the country to promote the fourth anniversary of her “Let’s Move” initiative to promote child health.

She also announced plans to expand the national school breakfast program to include almost 9 million children in 22,000 schools.

Obama said many students aren’t getting a nutritious breakfast, which can lead to lower test scores and disciplinary problems,

“This doesn’t just affect their health, it affects their performance in school,” the first lady said.