Attacking A Growing Problem
Policymakers are searching for ways to tackle childhood obesity, which may affect snack food producers.
It seems like every time you turn on the news or pick up the newspaper, there is a story about childhood obesity — what many experts in positions of influence call a growing and serious problem.
In just one week in March, for instance, there were four key developments that attracted attention and highlighted the seriousness of this problem — and, perhaps, both opportunities and challenges for snack food manufacturers.
ITEM: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it is seeking information on food industry marketing activities directed toward children and adolescents. The action is in response to instructions from Congress last year ordering the agency to examine the issue of advertising and marketing aimed at kids and the impact this has on what they eat.
ITEM: The Senate Health Education and Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee approved on March 8 the Children Media Research and Advancement (CAMRA) Act, which authorizes new research into the effects of viewing and using electronic media of all kinds on children’s development.
ITEM: The Associated Press carried a story citing a new study by the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity that says the number of overweight children worldwide will increase significantly by the end of the decade, and that nearly half of the children in North and South America will be overweight by 2010.
ITEM: The Brookings Institution and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School scheduled a forum on childhood obesity for March 14 in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the release of the latest “Future of Children” volume entitled “Childhood Obesity.”
The extent of this concern has not been lost on the snack food industry, which in some states faces possible restrictions on what foods can be sold in schools, and could be affected by any restrictions on marketing and advertising directed toward children.
Many companies have recognized increased consumer interest in health and wellness, and have developed new baked and low-fat snacking options. Some companies are marketing controlled calorie snack packaging to make it easier for parents to help manage their youngsters’ diets, as well as their own.
The Snack Food Association promotes a program called Kidnetic.com on its Web site, www.sfa.org, that encourages children to get more exercise to combat what many nutrition experts say are major contributors to childhood obesity: too much television, too many video games and not enough physical activity.
In addition, at the SNAXPO 2006 convention in Las Vegas in March, the issue of childhood obesity in Mexico and the impact on foods sold in schools was slated to be part of the SFA’s Latin American program, as well as another Latin American initiative aimed at improving physical exercise.
Meanwhile, in the United States, supermarket retailers are beginning to develop their own programs aimed at helping families that want to improve their overall health, including that of their children.
“Retailers can help consumers figure out how to fit the foods they purchase into the total picture,” said Lisa Katic, a registered dietitian and an SFA consultant. “Consumers would be happy to know if they can have a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet that a 100-calorie snack is pretty good. That’s an opportunity retailers can build on.”
Impact of Media
Policymakers are attacking the issue by examining and seeking to regulate the types of advertising and marketing that can be directed at young children. In a report by House-Senate appropriations conferees last year, lawmakers said they were concerned “about the growing rate of childhood and adolescent obesity and the food industry’s marketing practices for these populations.”
The conference committee directed the agency to submit a report by July 1, 2006, on marketing activities and expenditures of the food industry targeted toward children and adolescents.
The report, the committee said, should include an analysis of commercial advertising time on television and radio and in print media; in-store marketing; direct payments for preferential shelf placement; events; promotions on packaging; all Internet activities; and product placements in television shows, movies and video games.
As a result, the FTC announced in March that it is seeking comments on these subjects. This action follows a public workshop on food and beverage marketing to children, self-regulation, and childhood obesity, sponsored by FTC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The agencies received relatively little empirical data addressing the extent of food and beverage marketing to children in connection with the workshop,” said the FTC, in its announcement of the new study. The commission noted that it needs such information in connection with its latest effort and is requesting information from the industry on:
Types of foods and beverages marketed to children and adolescents.
Types of media used, the total amount of advertising expenditures for each medium, targeted age groups and the amount spent on each.
Techniques used to market to children and adolescents.
All Internet activities related to the marketing of food and beverages to children and adolescents, including advergaming.
The deadline for comments is April 3.
Meanwhile, the CAMRA Act, approved by the Senate HELP Committee with bipartisan sponsorship and support, authorizes new research into the effects of viewing and using electronic media, including television, computers, video games and the Internet on children’s cognitive, social, physical and psychological development.
“The good news on all these fronts is that the Snack Food Association is very engaged in the public policy and media debate on these issues,” said SFA President & CEO Jim McCarthy, noting that he and Katic are coordinating SFA’s response to news stories that “target snacks as the culprit for obesity on a regular basis.”
McCarthy noted that they also are working with government agencies, allied associations and others to emphasize the fact that “there are many reasons for the prevalence of obesity in our society and that no food or group of foods should be singled out for blame.”
At the same time, he added that SFA and its partner, the U.S. Potato Board, have developed a brochure entitled “Snacks Fit, Choose Balance” to educate consumers and others on how snacks do fit into a healthy diet.
Additionally, the SFA is working closely with a coalition of food companies to tackle restrictions on the sale of snack products in states and in schools. The SFA is working with food companies and advertisers to “bring balance” to the congressional and FTC review of childhood obesity and advertising, McCarthy explained.