Who’s for kids and who’s just kidding?

With all the political posturing, infighting and just plain foolishness in Washington this year, you might have missed an important proposal to help preserve a great national treasure: our children’s health. The proposal tackles a problem affecting all children in this country — the onslaught of food marketing that targets our children with nonstop pitches for sugary, fatty and salty foods and beverages. It’s no coincidence that these are the foods they eat too much of. 

The proposal is refreshingly simple: It encourages companies to promote foods and beverages children should eat more of and suggests they don’t market directly to children what they should eat less of. 
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We all know what food marketing tells our youth: “Eat this and have fun!” “Drink that, just like a baseball star!” “Get a free toy with your burger and fries!” But we might not be aware just how much of it children see — 12 food pitches on TV per day, on average, and many more if they watch a lot of TV or play games on their phones or computers. 

Many also might not be aware of how effective food marketing that targets children is. Three decades of research shows that food marketing causes children to prefer, nag for and eat what’s marketed to them. That’s why fast-food chains and food companies spend nearly $2 billion a year on marketing — more than $5 million a day, every day. 

The problem is that most of the foods and beverages marketed directly to children are for fatty, sugary, salty products, with few fruits, vegetables or whole grains. Food companies and fast-food chains should be responsible and not market unhealthy products to children. Grown-ups can fend for themselves, but children deserve protection. 

That’s why Congress asked scientists, nutritionists and doctors drawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission to come up with guidelines to show marketers — and parents — what levels of unhealthy fats, sugars and salt are safe to market to children. The amounts they recommend are based on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, adapted to the developmental needs of children (for example, they should consume less salt than adults). 

The Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children’s  guidelines are purely voluntary — companies that don’t want to participate don’t have to, just like the many companies that have not joined the industry self-regulation program. 

The proposal was published for public comment in late April. Despite the need, the science behind the recommendations and the fact that they are voluntary, the industry has been lobbying aggressively against the guidelines. The responses so far fit a classic pattern in four distinct parts: 

Part one, denial: “We don’t need any guidelines from scientists or doctors, we can make our own.”

Part two, self-aggrandizement: “We are proud to announce our own new and improved nutrition standards for self-regulation of marketing to kids. It’s better than ever!” 

Part three, hyperbole with media campaigns from the best PR firms money can buy: “Job killers! They want to forbid marketing everything to everyone! Nanny state, nanny state!”

Part four, attack as CEOs and lobbyists descend on Congress, agencies and the White House: “Guidelines infringe on our constitutional right to sell anything to anybody we want! There’s no absolute proof that advertising works! It’s parents’ fault!”

Listening to the high-pitched rhetoric, you can‘t tell if this is the tobacco industry or the food industry — the pattern is the same. The key weakness of their response is that these guidelines are voluntary, not government mandates. Voluntary suggestions don’t violate the First Amendment, won’t hurt business or kill jobs. 

Companies are making some progress in addressing food marketing, but progress has been painfully slow. On Nickelodeon, for example, the largest advertiser to children, the proportion of foods ads that are for unhealthy food decreased from 90 percent before self-regulation was implemented (in 2005) to 80 percent  after self-regulation was implemented (in 2009). Companies could clearly use some advice from the Interagency Working Group on how to do better. 

The fact is we all have to get serious about children’s nutrition and childhood obesity. Parents bear a lot of the responsibility. However, parents don’t market to children — food companies do. Food companies should support parents and do right by children. They should work with the IWG agencies rather than against them on voluntary, common-sense guidelines for marketing foods to our kids. 

Britt is the former CEO of Sesame Workshop and a member of the Institute of Medicine expert committee on food marketing to children. Dorfman directs Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute.