Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
I believe we should diligently regulate food marketing to children. You may believe I should mind my business. I agree with you!
There doesn’t seem to be much we can agree on these days across the spectrum of ideologies and politics. But if there is something, it’s that decent adults look out for the well being of children. ‘Loving Parents and Grandparents, Inc.’ could be the most powerful special interest group of all time!
The well being of children is, to varying degrees, the business of every responsible adult. And it’s business we should be minding a whole lot better. The evidence that we have failed to mind this business adequately is overwhelming and incontrovertible, and all but common knowledge.
Epidemic obesity didn’t ‘happen’ to our kids because of some extra-terrestrial invasion we were powerless to withstand. We let it happen. We made it happen- by what we have chosen to condone and prioritize as a culture.
We have made the proliferation and sale of energy-dense, manufactured foods more of a priority than the health of our kids. We have made indulgence of ‘free’ market forces more of a priority than the health of our kids.
And so, predictably, the health of our kids has gone where we sent it: to hell in our hand basket.
Epidemic childhood obesity is just the visible tip of an iceberg of present, and pending peril. We have widespread type 2 diabetes among our children; a generation ago, this was called “adult onset” diabetes. The proliferation of ever more cardiac risk factors in ever younger people is reported in the medical literature at regular intervals. There is actual coronary disease in adolescents. There is ever more bariatric surgery among teenagers. And we have recent evidence that the rate of stroke has risen 35% in children 5 to 14, with epidemic obesity the only smoking gun on the scene to account for it.
All of this is entirely preventable with better use of feet and forks. We don’t need new biomedical advances to eliminate most obesity and 80% of chronic disease; we simply need a societal commitment to use what we already know.
And we are even beginning to get some hopeful evidence that when we do so, it works. The rate of childhood obesity has dipped slightly in recent years in both the New York City schools, and among young children in Massachusetts. In both cases, a dedicated effort underlies these modest, but encouraging results.
Study after study indicates that the foods most assiduously marketed to children are the foods they would be well advised to minimize or avoid. The foods they would be best advised to eat for health promotion are marketed least, not at all, or ineffectively. The inadequate budgets and modest effects of ‘5 a day’ and subsequent campaigns to encourage produce intake are infamous in public health circles.
You might like to think your child is immune to this marketing- and if they aren’t, at least you are. If you think this, I would like to sell you a bridge- and with a little help from Madison Avenue, have no doubt I could do it. Marketing works, and that means we ARE vulnerable to it. It is the art of manipulation, and those who practice it have PhD biologists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and reams of research on their side.
We know it works because they keep spending money on it. We know it works because of innumerable studies that confirm it. And we know it works because occasionally, someone like Brian Wansink of Cornell brings expert marketing knowledge out of the boardroom and into daylight.
You may accept that marketing works, but feel that the industry should self-regulate. There are lesser and greater problems with this concept.
The lesser problem is that it creates a conflict of interest. How can you do your best job selling what you make when it is also your job not to sell too much of what you make? The business of business is business.
The greater problem is- it doesn’t work. We have volumes of real-world research showing business doesn’t regulate itself effectively. It advertises aggressively the foods most likely to harm our kids, and if some avenue of advertising shuts down, they devise a new and generally better one- such as advergaming.
The well being of children is everybody’s business, and everybody should mind that children are staring down the barrel of a glow-in-the-dark cheese doodle or sugar laden cereal loop at foreshadowed health and foreshortened lives.
So yes, I should mind my business. I’m a parent; this is my business!
As for the businesses that profit from selling excesses of new-age candies to babies, we should be minding them a whole lot better than we do.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com