Regulating Junk Food Advertising-The Next Nanny State Initiative

Jeff Stier

7/13/2011 12:01:00 AM - Jeff Stier

This article was co-authored by Michael Alan, of the National Center for Public Policy Research

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the 60,000 doctor-strong professional association, is calling for a government ban on “junk food advertising” to kids to help curb childhood obesity as four Federal agencies prepare to recommend “voluntary guidelines” that take more than a few steps in that direction.

There’s no denying that ads are effective. Otherwise, companies wouldn’t invest in them. But it may just be that the ads are part of a battle to increase market-share. Companies are vying for a bigger slice of the pie and the ads may not make the pie bigger, literally or figuratively. At least that is how it would be in a home where parents play a role in the decision-making process.

To anti-obesity crusaders, terms such as “junk food” allow them to demonize foods that when eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet do not contribute to obesity; that is, all food, no matter how fun, tasty, or aggressively it is marketed to kids. A ban on advertising to kids is appropriate for tobacco products, where any use of the product is wrong. Perhaps some activists believe that any consumption of foods they don’t want your kids eating is tantamount to smoking. But any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you what your grandmother already told you about moderation.

Like so many other nanny-state initiatives, activists fail to recognize the rule of unintended consequences. In a world where parents, not the government, are primarily responsible for children, ads for even the fattiest, saltiest, sugary, and nutritionally devoid foods can play a role in a child’s development. When a kid in the cross-hairs of marketers just “must have” that naughty food, parents have a unique opportunity to teach moderation, self-discipline, and how to distinguish marketing from information or education. In fact, research by University College London psychology professor Adrian Furnham shows that children as young as three are able to distinguish advertising from normal television programming. But in the world the AAP would like us to live in, children would not be exposed to ads until they are 18, the age at which the AAP must think young adults instantly gain discipline and the ability to make rational choices in their best interest. Either that, or they really want a total ban on promotion of a so called “junk foods,” and banning ads to minors is only the first step.

A ban on junk food advertising towards children simply postpones the learning process to later years when parents have less control. Ironically, the AAP seems to recognize this truth. “Pediatricians should encourage parents to discuss food advertising with their children as they monitor children’s TV-viewing and teach their children about appropriate nutrition,” they wrote in late June calling for the ban.

Advertisements for junk food meant to appeal to children are already banned in Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Quebec. And while the chances of a ban on the advertising of all foods not meeting the AAP’s arbitrary nutritional guidelines during “programming viewed predominately by young children” actually being implemented in the United States any time soon are slim, the AAP’s call comes amidst a string of recent actions against fast food industry marketing efforts, including “Happy Meal” toy bans in California’s Santa Clara and San Francisco counties late last year.

This isn’t the first time such a push is being made in this country. In 2007, then-Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications Rep. Ed Markey said “he was prepared to press the Federal Communications Commission . . . to protect children” by banning “junk food” advertising appearing alongside children’s programming, under what he says was the authority they were given in 1990 by the Children’s Television Act. Today, the guidelines being considered by the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Trade Commission, and Department of Agriculture are so far-reaching that industry officials are examining the constitutional arguments against their implementation and touting an economic analysis that shows the guidelines killing 75,000 jobs annually.

The campaign to limit marketing of disfavored foods is a priority for nanny-state activists. But just because obesity is a real problem doesn’t mean that every freedom-limiting intervention the activists call for should be taken seriously. In fact, if you are afraid of clowns, perhaps you have more to fear from the food-police than Ronald McDonald.