The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services today released a report recommending concrete steps that industry can take to change their marketing and other practices to make progress against childhood obesity. The report is a product of last summer’s joint FTC/HHS workshop, which provided a forum for industry, consumer, academic, and government stakeholders to examine the role of the private sector in addressing rising childhood obesity rates in the United States. Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled among adolescents and doubled among younger children. Workshop participants acknowledged that many factors contribute to childhood obesity, but recognized that regardless of the causes, responsible marketing can play a positive role in improving children’s diets and exercise behavior.
“Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity,” said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. “The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements.”
“Businesses need to work with mothers, fathers and children to bring America’s epidemic of childhood overweight under control,’’ said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt. ``Families can help children to be physically active and to eat right, and business can encourage children to eat nutritious foods in proper portions.”
The workshop focused on the role that the private sector, including food, media, and entertainment companies, can and should play to address the increasing problem of childhood obesity in the United States. Food companies presented their product, packaging, labeling, advertising, and marketing initiatives designed to promote lower calorie, more nutritious foods.
Media and entertainment companies discussed their incorporation of health and nutrition messages into programming and their support for public education campaigns featuring these messages. Workshop participants provided their views on the advertising guidelines that are enforced by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). Participants offered both praise and criticism of existing industry practices and self-regulatory efforts. Some also offered suggestions for ways that industry can build on current efforts and take new steps to tackle the childhood obesity problem.
The report summarizes the presentations, panel discussions, and oral statements made at the workshop and the written comments submitted. It also provides specific recommendations for action by the food industry, the media and entertainment industry, and CARU.
The FTC and HHS offered recommendations for action in the report, and noted that both agencies plan to monitor closely progress on these recommendations.
The agencies recommended that food companies:
- intensify their efforts to create new products and reformulate existing products to make them lower in calories, more nutritious, more appealing to children, and more convenient to prepare and eat;
- help consumers control portion sizes and calories through smaller portions, single-serving packages, and other packaging cues;
- explore labeling initiatives, including icons and seals, to identify lower-calorie, nutritious foods clearly and in a manner that does not mislead consumers;
- review and revise their marketing practices with the goal of improving the overall nutritional profile of the foods marketed to children, for example, by adopting minimum nutritional standards for the foods they market to children, or by otherwise shifting emphasis to lower-calorie, more nutritious products;
- generally explore ways to improve efforts to educate consumers about nutrition and fitness, with simple and effective messages; and
- review and revise their policies to improve the overall nutritional profile of the products they market and sell in schools.
In focusing on racial and ethnic populations in which childhood obesity is more prevalent, the agencies recommended that:
- food companies make a concerted effort to include, as part of their marketing of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods, promotions that are tailored to these communities; and
- food companies, the media, and entertainment companies tailor their outreach efforts to promote better nutrition and fitness to these populations.
The agencies recommended that media and entertainment companies:
- continue to develop and disseminate educational messages about nutrition and fitness that are simple, positive, and repeated consistently across various platforms, with broad participation from other stakeholders; and
- review and revise their licensing of children’s television and movie characters to foster promotion of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods.
The report noted that the current CARU Guides are a good foundation for industry self-regulation, but the agencies recommended that the Guides be expanded and their enforcement enhanced. Specific agency recommendations to be enacted right away included:
- expanding the CARU advisory board to include additional individuals with expertise in the various fields related to childhood obesity, such as nutrition, children’s health, and developmental psychology;
- allowing parents and others to file complaints with CARU and make decisions more readily available to the public online; and
- evaluating and determining whether CARU’s staff and resources are sufficient to monitor and enforce adequately the CARU guides, in light of any changes made in response to the recommendations set forth in this report.
The agencies recommend that industry consider additional self-regulatory measures, including:
- how to modify the CARU Guides to address forms of marketing foods to children other than traditional advertising;
- whether it would be beneficial and practicable to modify the CARU Guides to include (or to develop a new set of guides that would identify) minimum nutritional standards for foods that are marketed to children, standards that shift marketing to children to focus on more nutritious, lower-calorie foods, or other measures that would improve the overall nutritional profile of foods marketed to children;
- the feasibility of an independent non-profit or public health organization developing a seal or logo program that identifies more nutritious, lower-calorie foods;
- to what extent paid product placement of foods in contexts other than television programming (e.g., movies, video games, Web sites) is appropriate; and
- what additional sanctions or other measures should be incorporated into the CARU Guides to deter violations, especially repeated violations.
The agencies recognize the CBBB recently announced the formation of a new self-regulatory working group that will be reviewing the CARU Guides.
The agencies will closely monitor industry progress in implementing the recommendations set forth in the report, and in the future one or both of the agencies will issue a follow-up report assessing the progress that industry has made. In addition to this follow-up report, the FTC also is conducting a study on the nature and extent of food marketing techniques directed at children and adolescents. Information on good nutrition for kids can be found on the HHS Web site at http://www.hhs.gov/kids.
The FTC vote authorizing staff to issue the report was 5-0.
Copies of the report are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.htm. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to thousands of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
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