Foundation Urges Responsible Food Marketing to Kids

A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recommends new, stricter guidelines for the way companies advertise fast food, sugary cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, and other unhealthy food to children and teens. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the largest philanthropy in the US devoted solely to public health. One of its areas of focus is childhood obesity. Seventeen major food companies already participate in a program to meet certain criteria for advertising food to kids. The new guidelines are designed to close loopholes in those criteria.

According to Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, Managing Director, Healthy Eating, Active Living at the American Cancer Society, “If we are going to turn around the youth obesity trends in this country, addressing advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids is going to have to be part of the equation.”

Billions of dollars in marketing

Data from the Federal Trade Commission shows that major food and beverage companies spent $1.79 billion marketing foods and beverages to kids in 2009 (the most recent data available).  Much of it was spent on marketing unhealthy foods and beverages.

For example, 40% of money spent on food and beverage marketing to children and teens was spent to market fast food and other restaurant foods, and another 22% was spent to market soda and other carbonated beverages.

Less than 0.5% of total spending was spent to market fruits and vegetables to children and teens.

Expert recommendations

National experts from organizations including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, developed the Recommendations for Responsible Food Marketing to Children

They are designed to provide guidance to food and beverage manufacturers, retailers, restaurant companies, media and entertainment companies, industry trade associations, advertisers, marketers, government agencies, regulators and other policymakers, advocates, and researchers.

Among the recommendations:

  • Limit marketing aimed at kids ages 14 and younger. Current criteria limiting food and beverage marketing to children only apply to those ages 11 and under. However, research shows that older children and young teens are heavily influenced by marketing. And evidence shows 12 to 14-year-olds are disproportionately targeted by companies with unhealthy food and beverage advertising. Between 2007 and 2013, TV advertising to kids ages 12 and older increased 25%, according to the new report. 
  • Limit marketing when children make up at least 25% of the expected audience or when the ad is designed to be particularly appealing to children. Most companies currently only consider an ad to be child-directed when children are at least 35% of the expected audience, the report says.  Millions of children watch TV programs, visit websites, and play video games that do not meet most companies’ current definition of child-directed programming.  Any type of media that appeals to children through its characters, animation, jingles, games, or other characteristics, should be considered to be child-directed.  Only foods and beverages meeting nutrition criteria should be allowed to be marketed in this way, the report says.
  • When advertising highlights a brand more than a specific food or beverage product, all products in that brand should meet nutrition criteria. Under the current criteria, companies can advertise brands with a large proportion of unhealthy products, as long as the particular product or flavor featured in the ad meets nutrition criteria.
  • Policies limiting marketing to children should apply to all forms of marketing where children live, learn, and play. Certain forms of marketing are currently considered exempt, including toy giveaways, marketing on product packages, and some marketing in stores, restaurants, and middle and high schools.

The connection between diet and cancer

Unhealthy eating habits, a lack of physical activity, and excess weight raise the risk for developing cancer and dying from cancer. About 1 out of every 3 children in the US is overweight or obese, which can have both immediate and long-term health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children and teens who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, raising their risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

The American Cancer Society recommends children and adults get to and stay at a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet that includes:

  • at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day
  • less red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and less processed meat (bacon, sausage, luncheon meats, and hot dogs)
  • breads, pastas, and cereals made from whole grains instead of refined grains, and brown rice instead of white
  • fewer sweets

Children should get at least 1 hour of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity each day, with vigorous activity at least 3 days each week. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, preferably spread throughout the week. Moderate-intensity activity is about equal to a brisk walk, while vigorous-intensity activity makes your heartbeat and breathing faster, and makes you sweat.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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