Food Advertising Under Attack Yet Again

June 20, 2014

Recently, there has been a major resurgence of efforts to substantially change the status quo of food advertising in the U.S.  In mid-May, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act of 2014.  This legislation would end the federal tax deduction for advertising foods of “poor nutritional quality” to children, “children” being defined in the bill as anyone under 14 years of age.  The change would include marketing for beverages, candy and chewing gum, along with other foods.  The bill would also require the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to develop procedures to identify which foods and brands should be included under the new limitation.

This effort would be in addition to proposals pending in both the House and Senate tax writing committees to amortize 50% of all advertising expenses for either 5 or 10 years.  This one-two advertising tax punch would clearly have a devastating impact on food, beverage, and restaurant marketers.

If this new effort was not enough, a recently released documentary entitled “Fed Up” attempts to uncover why generations of American children will now live “shorter lives than their parents.”  The film, led by TV journalist Katie Couric, producer Laurie David (who also produced the Academy Award-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth”), and director Stephanie Soechtig, claims the food industry is almost single-handedly responsible for America’s obesity epidemic due to advertising of sugar-laden foods.  It suggests that people will stop trusting advertisements once they become aware of what manufacturers are actually putting in food.  What “Fed Up” fails to acknowledge are recent CDC studies that found that obesity for children under 5 years of age has been reduced by as much as 43 percent.  

All of the attacks also ignore several positive initiatives by the food advertising industry to combat obesity.  The industry, for example, has cut more than 6.4 trillion calories from foods in the last four years.  Many major companies have reformulated 20,000 products and now offer lower calorie, lower fat, lower sodium, or lower sugar options.  The self-regulatory efforts of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) have shifted the content of ads directed to children 12 and under to healthier foods.  The 17 participants in the CFBAI represent about 80% of child-directed TV food advertising. Healthy meals and products with lower sodium, sugar, or fat content are now the focus of the majority of advertising on child-directed media.

Obesity, especially childhood obesity, is a major problem.  Fortunately, the food and ad communities are systematically carrying out major programs to combat these dangers and provide healthy options for consumers.

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