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Why Tony still has a grip on kids' diets

 

Andrew Duffy

The Ottawa Citizen
February 8, 2008

With politicians threatening to take action to combat what they've called an "epidemic" of childhood obesity, executives at companies that market sweet cereals, sugary sodas and salty fast food are justifiably nervous.

The junk food industry is now attracting the kind of scrutiny once reserved for cigarette companies.

In the past two years, the industry has faced parliamentary inquiries, lawsuits and legislation, much of it aimed at curtailing the ability of food companies to advertise to some of their best customers: children.

In response, the industry has adopted a number of voluntary controls.

Recently, for instance, 16 of Canada's largest candy, fast-food and soft-drink companies pledged either not to advertise directly to children under 12, or to market only their healthier products to them.

The Children's Advertising Initiative was first unveiled last April when Health Minister Tony Clement praised the industry for helping to address what he has described as Canada's "appalling" childhood obesity rate.

"The companies thought it important to make a contribution to promote healthy, active living," said Janet Feasby, vice-president of Advertising Standards Canada, an industry group.

But some industry watchers believe the voluntary measures are a crafty public relations exercise designed to forestall a legislative crackdown.

"These companies are selling a bill of goods to reporters, parents and provincial law makers to protect their access to children outside Quebec," said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

He wants an outright ban on advertising that targets children under 13, similar to the one now in place in Quebec.

But is junk food advertising really that dangerous? Haven't other generations of children survived the sales entreaties of Cap'n Crunch and Toucan Sam? Should Tony the Tiger really be forced to go the way of Joe Camel?

Last year, the House of Commons health committee considered similar questions as it explored the factors driving Canada's obesity epidemic.

The committee's final report, issued in March, cited some alarming statistics: 26 per cent of young Canadians (aged two to 17) are overweight or obese. More than 50 per cent of children living on native reserves fall into the same category. Canada's childhood obesity rate, the committee found, ranks among the highest in the world: fifth among 34 developed countries.

Research has shown obese children face an elevated risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, joint problems and mental health issues; they're also more susceptible to heart attack and stroke.

In their report, MPs said children are clearly consuming too many calories by virtue of larger portions, fatty foods and sugary drinks. They wrote: "The link between obesity and the increased consumption of sweetened drinks is particularly disturbing. It has been estimated that sugary drinks may be responsible for as much as one pound per month weight gain in adolescents."

The committee also expressed its concern about research that links childhood obesity rates and "the advertising of high calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages to children."

Quebec, Sweden and Norway, the committee noted, all ban direct television advertising to children of any kind. Two years ago, Britain adopted a ban on junk food advertising -- products high in sugar, fat and salt -- on programs geared to children under 16.

Canadian MPs called for a study on the effectiveness of such advertising controls.

Conservative MP Rob Merrifield, chair of the health committee, said he doesn't believe that an outright ban on junk food advertising to children is now necessary. "There's no evidence to say this is the one thing that will make the difference," he said, "although we certainly put enough pressure on the industry to say, 'We have to do something here'."

Similarly, Janet Feasby of Advertising Standards Canada contends that such regulation is unnecessary in the face of responsible action by Canadian food and beverage companies. "Childhood obesity is a very complex issue: there's not one simple solution," she said.

Ms. Feasby also noted that Quebec, the only province with a ban on children's advertising, has a higher obesity rate than Alberta. (The rates in both Alberta (22 per cent) and Quebec (23 per cent) are below the national average.)

But industry critics contend that a ban is the only way to ensure meaningful protection for children. Bill Jeffery said the rules created by the industry's voluntary initiative define 'advertising to children' so narrowly that many current practices will not change.

For instance, he said, under its commitment, Kellogg Canada lists Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes and Corn Pops as cereals that meet its nutrition criteria; the products will continue to be advertised to children six to 11 years old. Kraft Canada Inc. has announced that Kraft Dinner, Post Honeycomb Cereal and Kool-Aid meet its nutritional requirements, and will continue to be similarly advertised.

"Those simply are not the types of foods children need to eat more of to improve their health," Mr. Jeffery said.

Johanne Trudeau, director of nutrition marketing for Kellogg Canada, defended her company's nutritional standards as science-based. All of the products listed, she said, have no trans fats and a maximum of 200 calories, two grams of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 12 grams of sugar per serving.

"The products had to meet those five criteria without exception," she said. "We stand behind our products. We think what we are doing now is a first step in the right direction."

In addition, he said, the regulatory scheme will not eliminate familiar breakfast cereal characters, such as Tony the Tiger or Snap, Crackle and Pop, who have particular appeal to children.

The Children's Advertising Initiative restricts the use of third-party licensed characters -- in other words, characters drawn from popular movies and TV programs -- to the marketing of healthier foods. But it does not restrict the use of characters created by the cereal makers, such as Tony the Tiger.

Given what he sees as loopholes in the voluntary scheme, Mr. Jeffery wants Canada to pass legislation that mirrors Quebec's ban on advertising to children, which has been in place since 1980.

"Children lack the cognitive maturity to properly interpret commercial advertising," he said.

Quebec's law has already survived constitutional scrutiny. In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Irwin Toy Limited's attempt to have the law struck down as a violation of freedom of expression.

"Children are not as equipped as adults to evaluate the persuasive force of advertising and advertisements directed at children would take advantage of this," the court ruled.

Mr. Merrifield believes it's inevitable that children's advertising will face further restrictions given the growing obesity rate in Canada. That rate has more than doubled during the past 30 years: eight per cent of Canadian children aged 2 to 17 are today considered obese.

"It (obesity) is very complex, but it is something that has to be dealt with," said Mr. Merrifield. "It's an epidemic out of control."

Jane Tallim, co-executive director of the Media Awareness Network, said she supports the idea of a ban on children's advertising -- even though she remains skeptical about its impact.

"In theory, as a parent, I would support that, but when you look at how children get information -- through cable and satellite TV, the Internet -- it may not be the most practical way to try to address the issue."

Ms. Tallim believes parents must educate their children about the nature of advertising, and help them think critically about the messages being delivered.

In the United States, the issue of food advertising to children has garnered the attention of the U.S. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and a broad assortment of health advocates.

It's estimated that U.S. advertisers spend more than $12 billon per year on messages aimed at the youth market and that the average child watches more than 40,000 television commercials per year.

As in Canada, most major U.S. food and soft-drink manufacturers abide by voluntary guidelines to control advertising to children. But FTC chairwoman Deborah Majoras and U.S. Senator Sam Brownback have warned that government could be forced to impose regulations if the industry fails to take bigger steps.

There's also the prospect of more legal action.

In January 2006, two Massachusetts parents, supported by the Centre for the Science in the Public Interest and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, filed a lawsuit against cereal-maker, Kellogg, to stop the marketing of junk food to children.

That lawsuit was settled last June when Kellogg agreed to advertise only its healthier foods to children under 12 (essentially the same standard now applied in Canada.)

In an interview, Steve Gardner, the Texas-based legal director for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said the settlement is a step in the right direction.

But there remain significant issues to be litigated, he said, including product placements in movies aimed at children, such as the Burger King logos that appear in Scooby-Doo 2, and the toys that are regularly offered as inducements by fast-food companies.

"Parents are responsible for what their children eat, but that doesn't mean companies are not," he argued. "These companies, they're marketing straight to the kids. They know parents are responsible so they're trying to bypass the parents. That's the purpose of this."

Mr. Gardner, however, insisted that junk food manufacturers should not be treated like cigarette makers, nor equated with them.

"The food companies are not the tobacco companies: it's a different deal," he said. "You can use food in a responsible manner. Burger King sells food that is not bad. Kellogg has plenty of products that are good.

"From an advocate's standpoint, it's a false analogy and we're fooling ourselves if we say we can deal with Big Food the way we dealt with Big Tobacco."

The food companies' self-regulatory scheme will not eliminate familiar cereal characters, such as Tony the Tiger or Snap, Crackle and Pop, who have particular appeal to children.

Some products that meet companies' nutrition criteria and will continue to be advertised to children aged six to 11:

- Froot Loops

- Frosted Flakes

- Corn Pops

- Kraft Dinner

- Post Honeycomb Cereal

- Kool-Aid

 

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