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Marketing Gets The Blame For Making Kids Fat

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. ---- Some of the nation's top researchers, alarmed about the rise in childhood obesity, are calling for Americans to demand a complete overhaul of the way unhealthy foods and drinks are marketed to kids.

They want:

* Food companies to stop bombarding children with ads on TV, radio, in magazines and movies for junk food, fast foods and soft drinks.

* Schools to quit selling these kinds of foods and drinks in the cafeteria, vending machines and school stores.

* Celebrities to stop hawking these foods. (Some examples: Beyoncé Knowles touting Pepsi; Shaquille O'Neal endorsing Burger King.)

* Companies like Disney and Nickelodeon to quit letting their characters represent sugary cereals, junk food and fast food. (Example: Kellogg's Disney Mud & Bugs cereal features The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa on the box.)

* Fast-food chains and food companies to stop pushing huge portions.

Spearheading the campaign is Yale University psychology professor Kelly Brownell, a man the food industry loves to hate and arguably the nation's leading authority on how the food environment affects waistlines.

Brownell, author of a new book, Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It (McGraw-Hill, $24.95), written with Katherine Battle Horgen, charges that ''kids aretargeted in relentless ways by food companies, and they aren't mature enough to make choices that affect their health.

''We've basically given the food industry a free pass at our children, and they need protection from a food and activity environment that is out of control,'' says Brownell, father of three and director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders on the campus here.

Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, agrees. Food companies ''have done an enormous amount to create an environment dominated by their products everywhere you turn.''

Brownell and Popkin are among a group of vocal nutrition experts who believe that Americans, particularly children, are fighting a near-futile battle against the bulge because food is everywhere and activity has been squeezed out of their lives.

The results: Almost 65% of adults in the USA are overweight or obese, and about 15% of kids and adolescents are overweight. The health consequences are showing up in children, who are increasingly developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The government is so concerned that top-level officials met with obesity researchers last month to try to figure out ways to curb the problem.

Popkin's studies give insights into why all this is happening. He has found that kids are eating 150 to 200 more calories a day now than they were 10 to 15 years ago. Because of frequent snacking, kids are consuming a third to half of a meal more a day than they did a decade ago, he says. Popkin believes this is because of the ''omnipresent'' ads aimed at children.

The industry counters that it is marketing to children responsibly. ''The marketplace is already moving to do many of the things that critics like Dr. Brownell are calling for,'' says Gene Grabowski of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the trade group that represents brand-name food companies. The industry is considering developing its own guidelines for marketing to children, he says.

Kraft Foods recently announced that it will reduce sugar, fat and calories in many of its products and shrink single-serve portions beginning in 2004. And the Coca-Cola Co. has a long-standing policy of not marketing soft drinks to children under 12, spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus says. The company recently expanded that policy to cover all its other beverages.

But in a society where advertising is ingrained in our daily lives, ''we'd be foolhardy to say advertising to kids is going to go away,'' says supermarket expert Phil Lempert.

A recent poll showed that most people believe parents bear the brunt of the responsibility for childhood obesity, Lempert says. It's not the kids themselves who are responsible, because they don't buy the foods in the supermarket or drive themselves to McDonald's, he says. ''We need parents, schools and food companies to take more personal responsibility.''

Others point out that obesity is a complex issue involving many factors. Being overweight is not just about food, it's about sedentary lifestyles, says David Dexter, a spokesman for the Snack Food Association, a trade group.

Opposing views

The two sides are far apart on what needs to be done:

* Issue: Selling unhealthy snack foods, candy, sugary drinks and fast foods in school vending machines, cafeterias and stores.

Brownell believes all these foods should be eliminated from schools and replaced with healthier products, which some school districts are doing already. One high school in Maine now offers only healthy foods in its vending machines. The principal has found that students are buying the new foods as well as they did candy and chips, and the school is continuing to make money off the sales, he says.

Sean McBride of the National Soft Drink Association says all food and drinks can be consumed in moderation. ''We're not suggesting that everybody should get all 64 ounces of their daily intake from one beverage, whether it's soft drinks, milk or juice.''

* Issue: Kids and advertising.

Brownell says children are pummeled with too many ads for unhealthy foods. One study found that the average American child sees 10,000 TV food ads a year, mostly for sugar-laden foods, fast foods and soft drinks, he says. If parents eat three meals a day with their children and at each meal give them messages about healthy eating, they'd only have 1,000 chances to affect their kids' choices, he says.

He believes there should be no ads for unhealthy foods on TV. Some countries don't allow the advertising of any foods or other products to children, he says.

Short of banning ads, Brownell recommends that the government should charge fees for ads for unhealthy foods or a small tax on the foods themselves to create ''a nutrition superfund'' to use to promote health foods. The ''snack tax'' or ''Twinkie tax'' has been the subject of much debate.

But Grabowski says not advertising to kids ''is absurd. You have to allow appropriate advertising and marketing to all segments of society. You don't want to stop marketing corn flakes, crackers or even cookies that are a nice treat.''

The industry already is being responsible in the way it markets to kids: showing reasonable portions, having characters pour milk over their cereal and using voice-overs to talk about how cereal should be part of a balanced diet, he says.

Grabowski says snack taxes would hurt the people who can afford it the least.

* Issue: Celebrities and cartoon characters marketing foods to children.

Parents should pressure celebrities to stop pushing unhealthy foods and companies like Disney and Nickelodeon to quit permitting their characters to be associated with these foods, Brownell says. ''If Disney wants to lend its Winnie the Pooh character to promoting carrots, that's fine with me, but not sugary cereals.''

Grabowski says sports stars and cartoon characters have been in ads for years, and they are seen in those ads consuming these products in responsible ways. ''They are eating modest-sized portions.''

* Issue: Portion sizes.

The supersizing of foods and the bargain-basement prices of big quantities encourage children to eat larger portions, Popkin says.

Prices need to change so people will buy less and eat healthier, he says. Ideally, fast-food chains would lower the price of smaller servings and raise the price of the bigger ones. ''When the price of cigarettes went up, cigarette consumption declined markedly,'' he says.

Another idea: The front of the packages should list the number of servings, Brownell says. So a 20-ounce bottle of soda would say 2 servings.

That labeling ''might be worth considering as we look for ways to help inform people about nutrition,'' Grabowski says.

But he opposes raising prices for larger sizes. ''This is suggesting the marketplace be turned on its head, and the fact is that consumers are looking for the best value.''

Ken Barun of McDonald's says the company's menu offers choices ''from premium salads, juice, grilled chicken, 1% milk and fruit and yogurt parfaits to a wide selection of hamburgers, drinks and desserts that absolutely can be right-sized for any age.''

One idea almost everyone agrees on is the need for kids to be more active. One way to help them is to build more trails and sidewalks so they can bike and walk more, Brownell says.

Consumers decide

Popkin says changes are beginning, but he doesn't believe there will be dramatic differences made until the food industry is faced with ''economic or legal consequences.'' The obesity battle will be similar to the tobacco wars, and it will be fought in the courtroom for decades and also with legislation and regulation, he says.

Grabowski says companies are responding to consumer demand for healthier foods. ''Clearly the lawsuits are a factor in this debate,'' he says. ''But companies would be reacting to the marketplace irrespective of the lawsuits. This issue is going to be settled in the marketplace, not the courtroom.''

Meanwhile, families have to do their best by their children. Parents have to be more vigilant about when they say yes and no, says Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York who works with overweight kids.

Parents have more control and influence than they think, but they have to set a good example, Ayoob says. ''I never see kids who have better diets than their parents.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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