WASHINGTON — If we are what we eat and we eat what is advertised, then American children are facing death by junk food.

Half of all the advertising time on children’s television shows is devoted to food ads, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study of food advertising aimed at kids. And what do the commercials pitch? Candy, cereal, fast-food and other restaurants, soda and other sweetened drinks.

Just as surely as the tobacco industry tried for years — and succeeded — in hooking young kids on its deadly weed, the food industry is spending billions to advertise products that will make the next generation look and live like its porky parents: overweight, and at great risk of debilitating disease and early deaths linked to obesity.

Concerned by the lack of publicly available information about food advertising to kids, the Kaiser foundation went well beyond the 40 to 50 hours of programming that had typically been reviewed in earlier studies and examined 1,600 hours of TV fare. More important, the foundation reviewed all types of programs that children see — not just cartoons and other children’s shows, but sitcoms, reality shows, movies and others that older children prefer.

The result is an alarming portrait of kids who are bombarded with precisely the opposite message about food and fitness than the one the government and the medical profession agree is needed for good health. Children between ages 2 and 7 see 12 food ads per day — that’s more than 4,000 per year. Those in the next age group — the pre-adolescent “tweens” between 8 and 12 — see even more. They’re tuned in to 21 food ads every day, or more than 7,000 every year. Teenagers see somewhat fewer ads, but even they will view 17 food ads a day.

The foods that star in the ads aren’t broccoli or even bread. Kids are pitched a super-sized lineup of ads for candy and snack food, which account for 34 percent of food ads aimed at them. Another third of the ads are for cereal — and not the low-sugar kind.

While young children might beg parents for Pop-Tarts instead of oatmeal, the apparent targeting of pre-adolescents is aimed at a group that is just beginning to get out on its own, have its own pocket money, and begin choosing what to eat. “The tweens are really a big target of food advertising,” says Vicky Rideout, director of the Kaiser foundation’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health.

And while a tween sees as many as 21 ads a day for sweets or sugary sodas, the same kid is exposed to only one public service announcement promoting fitness and health every two to three days. “There are very few of them on the air,” Rideout says.

Baby boomer parents who remember Tony the Tiger and the Trix Rabbit may not leap to concern. But they might also recall those long after-school bike rides and endless afternoons of neighborhood kickball — not hour upon hour plopped in front of video games or the television. The combination of saturation advertising for junk food and the sedentary lives that today’s kids lead already has caused an unprecedented jump in childhood obesity — more than 30 percent of children between 6 and 11 are overweight and 15 percent are obese. The diseases they develop, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, weren’t commonly seen in kids a generation ago. Treating them already is costing insurers, employers and taxpayers billions.

It took more than four decades from the time of the earliest government warnings about tobacco’s ill health effects to bring that industry under what is a minimal level of control — and even that came only after lawsuits, some of them still moving slowly through the courts. The food industry shouldn’t follow this contentious path. It must step up what are now only preliminary efforts to voluntarily change the content of the ads it produces for children.

Otherwise it too could stand accused of killing our kids for profit. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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