MARKETING OBESITY: Why is money being pumped into ads as childhood obesity rises?

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Feb. 2, 2015)-- Ever wonder how much the food industry spends to market sugary junk food to kids? According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 44 of the largest food companies spent $1.8 billion on kid-targeted advertising in 2009.

The White House is apparently dropping the efforts to track how much the companies spend to promote cereals, snacks and other less than healthy foods that has health officials like Dr. Virginia Caine, the director of the Marion County Health Department, worried.

Her 2014 community health assessment turned up obesity and diabetes as two of top health concerns of children in Marion County.

“When you have an industry that spends almost 1.8 billion dollars to market to these young children, you can see the impact of what we’re seeing. Because our rates of obesity is climbing  in epidemic proportions,” said Dr. Caine.

Marketing of junk food to youngsters is sophisticated. Smartphone race car games collect points that can be used to buy Mountain Dew. Social media sweepstakes campaigns are designed to build engagement, often with kids.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) is taking on the role of self monitoring by the food industry.

A 2013 report says 17 major American companies came together on their own as part of the CFBAI to adopt new standards for marketing to kids.  It notes, for instance Campbell soup company increased the whole grain content of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Grahams to the 8 grams per serving level.

General Mills reduced the sugar in Cinnamon Toast Crunch to 9 grams.  Dannon reduced the sugar in Danimals Smoothies by 25 percent.

Dr. Caine is skeptical.  She’s seen what she calls a huge increase in childhood obesity since 2005.

“We’ve seen diabetes off the charts with our young children, now chronic diseases that occur in families,” says Dr. Caine.

Further, she is hopeful the food companies will continue their efforts to make food targeted to children healthier.

“Not everyone is a participant. We need to know the overall impact of the industry. You need an evidence based independent study to really look at the impact  related to this,” said Dr. Caine.

There is some hope the FTC may put together another study in the next year or so.

In the meantime, Jackie Dikos, a registered dietician and owner of the website Nutrition Success, says it’s really a parental role to educate children about sugary foods.

“For me personally, I don’t think it’s an issue at all. I hope that positive reinforcement from the home will discourage the kids from being overly enticed by those commercials," said Dikos.

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