WASHINGTON - The federal government is hoping to slow the obesity epidemic with a series of advertisements that suggest Americans can lose love handles and double chins by exercising more and eating healthier food.
But because the ads, unveiled in recent days, are public service announcements, the frequency with which Americans are reminded of the goals depends largely on the largess of television broadcasters and newspaper companies.
Therein, some critics say, lies a key problem with the government's efforts to combat obesity and promote healthy eating, something it has declared a top national priority. At a time when the beer industry spends more than $1 billion a year on advertising, the federal government is devoting relatively few dollars to promote its nutrition campaign.
"This administration talks a lot about obesity and physical inactivity," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group in Washington. "But it's all talk and very little action. They're not putting money towards programs."
While producers of candies, soft drinks, chips and other less-than-nutritious foods bombard consumers with thousands of prime-time ads, the Department of Agriculture has budgeted $1.8 million to publicize its soon-to-be-released revised food pyramid.
"The education campaign, whatever it is, goes up against $34 billion in food industry advertising a year," said Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist and a frequent critic of industry influence on government nutrition policies. "One million dollars or $2 million isn't even the ad budget for Altoids mints."
An analysis of advertising spending by the food industry shows just how much of a climb the government faces in its battle to slim America's waistline. Conducted by TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, the analysis shows that some of the foods considered the least healthful advertise the most.
Beer and ale advertising totaled $1.2 billion in 2002. More than $750 million was spent on soft-drink ads, $570 million on cereals and $545 million on candy and mints. During the same year, about $51 million was spent on advertising fruit and $47 million on vegetables.
In TNS Media Intelligence survey of restaurant advertising during the first nine months of 2003, McDonald's spent nearly twice as much on advertising as any other restaurant company, with $465 million. The next biggest spenders were Wendy's with $238 million and Burger King with $221 million.
It is hard to define how much the federal government spends on obesity and nutrition programs because the programs are spread over many agencies and are often hard to categorize.
One of the government's major obesity initiatives is called Steps to a HealthierUS, which provides seed money to local initiatives that encourage exercise and healthy eating choices. The program receives $44 million, although the administration is seeking $125 million in 2005.
In addition, the 2005 budget request for obesity research at the National Institutes of Health calls for a 10 percent increase, to $440 million.
At the same time, the administration is trying to cut the budget for the VERB campaign, which encourages children to exercise more, from $36 million to $5 million. The program was credited with increasing the amount of exercise among children by 34 percent in a survey released this month.
John Webster, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which is revising the food pyramid, said the government doesn't just rely on advertising. In the case of the food pyramid, he said the USDA also counts on educators, government officials and nutritionists to disseminate its nutrition message.
"We attempt to get it out into the hands of people, textbook writers, dietitians," Webster said. "We call them information multipliers."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who has emerged as the nation's leading scold on obesity, recently brushed off criticism about federal spending on obesity programs. He made no apologies about asking media companies for free space for the anti-obesity ads, which were produced by the Advertising Council at no cost to the government.
"It's tight times," said Thompson, who likens the battle against obesity to that waged against tobacco. "We're going to ask for the generosity of the media, but why not?"
If the ads aren't successful as public service announcements, Thompson vowed that his agency would "raise the dollars to get them played."
Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive officer of the Advertising Council, said her agency's advertisements, which include Smokey Bear and a spot featuring crash-test dummies - get about $30 million a year in free publicity in everything from newspapers and television to billboards and the Internet. Conlon predicted the anti-fat ads would exceed the norm because obesity is a hot issue.
The obesity ads are part of a multipronged effort by the administration to address the problem of obesity in the United States, which is expected to soon surpass tobacco as the nation's leading preventable cause of death.
Besides the public service ads and a redesign of the food pyramid, the federal government has launched an interactive Web site called www.smallstep.gov and focused federal researchers on problems related to obesity.
A Food and Drug Administration task force on obesity recommended Friday that the nutrition fact panel on the side of food packages be changed to emphasize the number of calories in food. The task force also recommended that portion sizes listed on the nutrition panel more accurately reflect the amount people actually eat.
The administration's strategy for fighting obesity mirrors the objectives of the food industry - pushing the theme of exercise and personal responsibility rather than government regulation. Some public health advocates, including the World Health Organization, have called for stronger measures such as limiting junk food ads and urging consumers to limit sugar consumption.
The personal responsibility litany is evident in the new public service ads, whose tagline is "Take a Small Step to Get Healthy." It also was on display at a recent news conference where the obesity ads were unveiled and where federal officials touted simple and cheap tips for shedding pounds.
Thompson, for one, showed off a pedometer strapped to his belt that tracks how much he walks and said he had already lost 15 pounds.
Noting that the audience of bureaucrats and journalists appeared "chunky," Thompson said, "Try to do 10 sit-ups tonight in front of your television and five push-ups. ... This is something everyone has to do for their self, but we can do it together, and it can be fun."
Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said her agency encourages its employees to exercise more by providing better lighting and hanging pictures in office stairwells to make them more inviting.
"Of course, it helps if you turn off some of the elevators," she quipped.
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.