Television Advertising and Childhood Obesity, Part 2

Kill Your TV: Lies, Lies

Childhood obesity is a worldwide problem. Not long ago, Stephanie Nebehay reported for Reuters on the latest World Health Organization guidelines. A WHO spokesperson, Timothy Armstrong, is quoted as saying,

The rate of increase in the developing world is greatest because of a rapid change in diet and physical activity patterns.

Nebehay passes along the information that, worldwide, there are probably 42 million children under five years of age — that’s just the ones under five, mind you — who are overweight. The great majority of them live in developing countries.

Now, a very large proportion of the world’s children are victims of an alarming epidemic of obesity. Many, no doubt, are as inadequately fed as ever, but things really are getting strange. In the so-called third-world areas, it used to be that kids were in danger of starvation, and suffered from a variety of deficiency diseases. Some still are starving and are ill because of it, but now, rather than being malnourished and thin, they are malnourished and fat.

WHO would like to see something done about advertising, and gently chides Michelle Obama for declining to recommend more regulatory action as a prong of her “Let’s Move!” campaign. Which brings up another unpleasant fact. In the developed nations, childhood obesity is a disproportionately large problem among minority groups. It is for such reasons that the whole issue is so difficult to tackle.

And now to the crux of the matter: Banning junk food advertisements as a means of reducing childhood obesity — does it work? Well, according to some sources, this question has already been answered. In the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, David Ashton tells us about the Hastings Review, one of those studies of studies, that attempts to sum up a very large amount of data into meaningful and usable information.

Please don’t miss “Food advertising and childhood obesity.” It’s very readable, and the references are thorough. Ashton relates how Britain’s Food Standards Agency invited Professor Gerard Hastings and others to review an enormous amount of research. Yes, this was back in 2004, so it isn’t news, and that’s the point. We’ll get back to that later.

Ashton tells us that the research team looked at nearly 30,000 scholarly articles and chose 120 as being relevant to the project. Among those, two studies were very frequently cited in the Hastings Review, and both of them had indicated that TV advertising or no TV advertising, it doesn’t make a bit of difference. Ashton says,

This conclusion is supported by experience from Quebec where, although food advertising to children has been banned since 1980, childhood obesity rates are no different from those in other Canadian provinces. A similar advertising ban has existed in Sweden for over a decade, but again this has not translated into reduced obesity rates.

The findings of the study were self-contradictory, which often happens in reality, too, so that’s all right. But, apparently, health journalists at the time mainly picked up on the parts of the Hastings Review that seemed to support stricter controls on advertisers. What the headlines said back in 2004 did not exactly reflect what was actually found. So there was confusion. The publicity seems to have set off a wave of reaction against television advertising that is still in force today but may never have been fully justified.

So, that’s the other point. We might want to ask ourselves, about all this: Are we only spinning our wheels here, recycling an old, tired, fruitless argument? At what point can we consider this matter settled, and either deal with it, or move on to more productive strategies?

Art Bonus

From SuperPunch: “If Rembrandt painted advertisements for junk food and beer.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “WHO targets child obesity with food marketing curbs,” Reuters, 05/20/10
Source: “Food advertising and childhood obesity,” JRSM, 02/04
Image by badjonni, used under its Creative Commons license.

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