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Selling Junk Food to Toddlers


New York Times, February 23, 2006


For all the talk about protecting children in America, too many of our youngest are threatened by a steady blast of industrial-strength advertising on children's television. Some ads, like those for toys and games, mostly threaten the family budget. But the commercials hawking sugary treats or empty calories can be more pernicious. Many health professionals now fear that junk-food advertising to toddlers and pre-teenagers is contributing to soaring rates of obesity and diabetes among the young.

The Institute of Medicine, in a report last December sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that "current food and beverage marketing practices put children's long-term health at risk." It argued that the onslaught of commercials directed at such very young children can set bad dietary patterns for life. And children under 8 are generally defenseless against sophisticated barrages from the giants in the food industry.

Parents are the first line of defense, but it's tough to hold the line in the grocery store against the piercing whines of little ones when they spot a sugary treat sponsored by a favorite cartoon character. The government and the food and media industries need to help out.

The government, however, has barely noticed this problem. The Federal Trade Commission decided last year that the food industry should police itself on marketing low-nutrient foods to increasingly fat children.

Some companies, like Kraft Foods, appear to have gotten the word. The company has agreed to stop marketing such sweets as Oreos to children under 12. And networks that televise cartoons, including Nickelodeon, are trying to add more advice to the young on how healthy food and outdoor exercise can make you feel good, too.

But progress has been so slow that the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and two Massachusetts parents have announced plans to sue Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, and the Kellogg Company. These advocates of healthy food have accused both companies of "unfair and deceptive" junk-food marketing to children under the age of 8. They have argued that high-powered ads aimed at children as young as 2 years old is "creepy and predatory."

It is not clear that a lawsuit like this can prevail, even in consumer-friendly Massachusetts. But the message should be clear. Americans pride themselves on protections for the young, but they're ignoring an issue that may be as important as car seats. With more than nine million obese youngsters over 6 in this country, it's time to stop encouraging another generation to eat wrong.

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