November 18, 2011

Selling Candy to Kids

To combat the rise in childhood obesity, Congress in 2009 asked the Federal Trade Commission and three other government agencies to create voluntary nutritional standards for foods that are marketed to children. In April, the interagency group released sound recommendations to guide self-regulation by the food industry.

After public comment, however, an F.T.C. official recently told a House subcommittee that the agency would substantially modify the guidelines to account for industry complaints. That would be bad news for the health of children in this country.

Lobbyists for the food industry, which spends almost $2 billion a year on advertising and marketing to children and adolescents, have been busy in recent months trying to squash the voluntary standards. Although these standards would not be enforceable, there is value to having a good set of criteria that could guide the industry.

The interagency group’s original proposal outlined limits on the amount of unhealthful ingredients like added sugars and trans fat in foods advertised to children and proposed increased nutritious ingredients like whole grains and low-fat dairy products. It covered marketing to young people ages 2 through 17 and focused on 10 food categories that take up a big share of children’s diets, including sugary cereals, snack foods, candy, carbonated beverages and fast foods.

Now the F.T.C. staff says the guidelines should not apply to ads directed at adolescents ages 12 through 17, except in in-school marketing activities. They also said the voluntary standards would not cover seasonal candies.

While a few companies like Mars and Hershey have limited commercials for candy or other sweets to very young children, the industry’s self-policing efforts have been weak. One study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that ads for unhealthy foods accounted for 86 percent of the food ads on television and the Web in 2009, only a modest improvement from 94 percent in 2003. Instead of giving in to lobbyists, the Obama administration should be doing more to limit the way unhealthy foods are sold to children.