Advertising Obesity: Can the U.S. Follow the Lead of the UK in Limiting Television Marketing of Unhealthy Foods to Children?

By Darwin, David | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Advertising Obesity: Can the U.S. Follow the Lead of the UK in Limiting Television Marketing of Unhealthy Foods to Children?


Darwin, David, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


ABSTRACT

Childhood obesity has tripled in the U.S. since the 1970s, and television advertisement of unhealthy foods has been linked to the unhealthy eating habits of children. The United Kingdom, facing a similar problem, promulgated regulations in 2007 banning the advertisement of foods high in fat, sodium, and sugar during programming directed at children below age 16.

In the U.S., industry representatives, public policy advocates, and government officials are debating whether to rely on self-regulation efforts or to implement government-established guidelines. Industry representatives argue that government guidelines would do little to solve the childhood obesity problem and that the UK regulations did more damage than good. Advocates argue that these advertisements significantly encourage unhealthy eating habits. This Note compares the path such regulations would have to take in the U.S. as compared to that in the UK and analyzes the arguments for and against implementing UK-style regulations in the U.S. This Note concludes that American implementation of the UK's limited restriction of such advertising is an appropriate step toward reversing the rate of childhood obesity in the United States.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  I. INTRODUCTION
 II. BACKGROUND
     A. History of U.S. Efforts
     B. UK Ban
III. COMMUNICATIONS REGULATORY STRUCTURE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM AND
     THE UNITED STATES
     A. Ofcom
     B. The Federal Communications Commission
     C. The Federal Trade Commission
     D. Self-Regulation: The Children's Food and
        Beverage Advertising Initiative
 IV. ARGUMENTS AGAINST IMPOSING THE BRITISH SYSTEM
     A. Criticism From the Media, Advertisers,
        and Food and Beverage Manufacturers
        1. Reduced Funding for Quality Children's Programming
        2. Minimal Impact of Advertising on Children's Health
        3. Inappropriate Age Range
     B. Criticism from Public Advocates
  V. TRANSLATION INTO UNITED STATES POLICY
     A. Some Action Should Be Taken
        1. With Such a Large Target Consumer Market, Children's
           Television Programming Can Rebound
        2. Advertising of Unhealthy Food Does, in Fact, Impact
           Children's Health 3. Advertising Restrictions Should Be
           Extended to Cover Older Children as Well
     B. Constitutional Implications and a Pre-Watershed Absolute Ban
 VI. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

In the United States and the United Kingdom, advocates, government officials, and parents have expressed concern over the drastic increase in the weight of children. (1) In just three decades, the rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled, from about 4% of six- to eleven-year-olds in the 1970s to more than 15% of the same age group in 2004. (2) In the UK, the problem is even more serious. Between 1995 and 2004, the rate of obesity in British children between ages two and ten rose from 10% to 16% in boys and from 10% to 11% in girls. (3) At the same time in the UK, the rate among children between ages eleven to fifteen rose from 14% in boys and 15% in girls to 24% and 26%, respectively. (4) These alarming statistics have regulators and legislators searching for solutions, and some proposals include television advertisements targeting children. (5) In the U.S., the problem remains that half of all television advertisements promote food. (6) Moreover, of that half, 72% promote candy and snacks, cereal, and fast food. (7)

Why do such advertisements present such a problem for children's eating habits? Advertisers take aim at children because of their significant buying power, either through direct purchases made on their own or through pressure exerted on their parents, specifically in regards to food purchased at the grocery store and restaurants. (8) Further, while "the fast food industry is an important force in the obesity epidemic ... [,] the television and video industries play a key role by directly advertising foods to children and by encouraging sedentary behavior. …

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