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Experts Debate Media's Role in Obesity

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WASHINGTON, Dec 10, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- A dramatic rise in childhood obesity rates in the United States can be blamed at least partially on the media, experts contend, adding that those same media also could use their significant influence to help solve what has become a major public health problem.

The media, however, are just one part of the solution. Other actions include more government action and regulations on advertising, experts said.

Obesity among children has taken center stage in the public health spotlight as rates have climbed continuously in the past few decades. For example, more children now are being treated for type 2 diabetes, an illness previously seen mainly among obese adults.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, from 1999-2000, show an estimated 15 percent of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 were defined as clinically overweight, meaning their body mass index exceeded the government limit. Between 1971 to 1974, that figure ranged from 4 percent to 6 percent for that age group.

"People don't understand the nuances of obesity," said Dr. Neal Baer, executive producer of Wolf Films in Universal City, Calif. He has written for television shows such as "ER" and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

Baer told a workshop panel held by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine that obesity is a multi-faceted problem involving not only the media but also parents, schools, corporations and lawmakers -- all of which need to get involved to curb the trend.

Television often has been used as a vehicle for public health messages. Obesity, Baer said, is not a glamorous subject to write about for TV, but some behind the cameras are interested in bringing a new message to the small screen.

"It would be quite easy for 'Boston Public', a show on Fox, to do a show about vending machines that distribute sodas at school," Baer said. "It would be an interesting topic and one for debate ... the money raised from junk food. The challenge with obesity is that it's quite not interesting to a lot of (entertainment) writers."

Eric Rosenthal, a marketing specialist from Frankel, an advertising agency in Chicago whose clients include McDonald's, said the trick is to understand how the media habits of a growing child change over time so that companies can better target healthy messages to kids through the right mediums.

"We have to identify the right media strategy," Rosenthal said.

Parents are the media gatekeepers for young children, he said, "(but) as kids get older, their media habits change. TV is king and that remains king throughout."

As children mature, however, they begin to get their information from multiple sources, such as the Internet, movies and video games.

"It's not about getting a kid to take a flu shot," Rosenthal said. "It's about changing their behavior. You need a constant reminder of this message."

Rosenthal said the media and corporations are not the enemy. Instead, advertisers are working to incorporate sporting goods manufacturers, such as Wilson Co. and sports leagues, such as the National Football League and the National Hockey League, to deliver anti-obesity messages to children by emphasizing the fun of physical activity.

"It's about the carrot, not about the stick," he said.

Despite new anti-obesity media campaigns, many panelists criticized the corporate and media worlds for continuing to bombard children with unhealthy messages and subliminal messages telling kids they are "part of the in-crowd if you're consuming certain foods," said Velma LaPoint, professor of childhood development at Howard University in Washington.

"This wouldn't be a problem if the marketing was promoting healthy foods," said Dr. Margo Wootan, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit consumer watchdog group based in Washington. "Children are exposed to an endless barrage of marketing everywhere they go throughout the day."

A new CSPI report, "Pestering Parents," found in 1998 foods and beverages marketed to children ages 4 to 12 added up to a $7.7 billion industry. The report also said the spending power of children doubled each decade in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and tripled in the 1990s. One-third of their money now buys foods and drinks.

"Congress should give the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) the authority to work with the Department of Health and Human Services on the kinds of foods that can be marketed to children," Wootan said.

"The FTC is not a public health agency," said FTC spokeswoman Mary Engle. "(But) we think some of our experience can help in ways of getting at this problem."

For example, the FTC has the authority to go after companies that engage in false or misleading advertising, including junk food companies. Engle cited a case against Islay Klondike, the maker of Klondike Lite ice cream bars, for publishing misleading information about the fat content of their product.


Katrina Woznicki covers health issues for UPI Science News. E-mail

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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