Be Afraid, Very Afraid

Posted: Aug 12, 2006 3:37 AM

Attention, parents: You’d better not take your children shopping this summer. Or, if you’re in Indiana, allow them to watch TV. The first activity is too dangerous, the second too disturbing.

Let’s take television viewing first.

It’s usually one of mankind’s most passive activities, but this summer it can make a viewer’s hair stand on end. That’s because the state of Indiana is trying to frighten parents into taking care of their children. It sponsored several Public Service Announcements that are realistic and really chilling. One features a child (apparently) drowning in a bathtub, another a child (apparently) drowning in a backyard pool.

Some 30 people have already complained to the ad agency that made the PSAs. Small wonder, as the ads are indeed disturbing.

The PSAs were funded by The Kids First Trust Fund, which gets its money from the sale of “Kids First” license plates in the state. It’s supposed to spend its revenues “for projects addressing prevention of child abuse and neglect.” But the drivers who’ve purchased these plates ought to ask whether their money is being well spent.

Our federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission says 250 children under the age of five drown in pools each year. That’s five per state. Assuming Indiana is close to the average, pool drownings aren’t the biggest threat to children in the Hoosier state.

In fact, going to the supermarket might be more dangerous. Kicking off its own scare campaign, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently announced that more than 24,000 children suffered shopping cart injuries last year. Dr. Gary Smith warned parents that, “Children have died from falls from shopping carts. We also know that many of these children are severely injured. They have severe fractures and can have lifelong disabilities.”

And in case you were wondering, the AAP wants new state and federal laws that would set minimum safety standards for shopping carts, even though surveys show that only about one in seven parents even bother to use the safety straps already provided – maybe because they’re so often broken.

Enough. It’s time to end all the scare techniques. Especially those far out of proportion to the threat they’re attempting to protect us from.

If Indiana wants to make an ad about a real problem, it ought to focus on childhood obesity. Unlike drownings, obesity is a common and steadily growing problem nationwide.

The American Obesity Association says more than 15 percent of children aged 6-11 are obese. That’s more than double the 7 percent who were obese in 1980. And this huge jump may have been triggered by government policies.

Since almost the beginning of our republic, the government has attempted to protect domestic sugar growers by imposing high tariffs on imported sugar. At the same time, the government subsidizes sugar growers. As a result, Americans have long paid higher-than-market rates for sugar.

Because sugar’s so expensive, many manufactures have turned to high-fructose corn syrup. It’s in almost everything, from soft drinks to jellies and baked goods. In 2001, Americans ate 62.6 pounds per person of the sweetener, up from none in 1966.

Of course, that doesn’t prove that high-fructose corn syrup causes obesity, but scientists do know it’s digested much differently than sugar. It “appears to behave more like fat with respect to the hormones involved in body weight regulation,” Peter Havel, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis told The Washington Post. That may be one reason that a 2000 University of Minnesota study led by J.P Bantle concluded, “diets high in added fructose may be undesirable, particularly for men.”

Again, high-fructose corn syrup’s popular because it’s cheaper than sugar, and it’s cheaper than sugar because the government props up the price of sugar. Let’s at least lift the tariffs and end the sugar subsidies, and see which product consumers prefer in an open market.

If Indiana wants to find a better use for its Kids First Trust Fund, it could invest the money in launching a state-wide school exercise program. Virtually everyone, including the Surgeon General, the National Academy of Sciences and the WHO agree our children need about an hour a day of moderate physical activity, and they aren’t getting that now.

Parents need to make sure their children get more exercise and better food. The government can do a little bit to help them.

Instead, governments and doctors are trying to frighten us by throwing money at and focusing attention on less important problems. In the long run, that’s the bigger threat to our children.