Like campaigns vs. smoking, we need one vs. obesity
WE ARE desperately searching for a topic on which the White House may speak without raising the hackles of every breathing Republican. It is difficult. But in this season of good will and gluttony, we are called to worry, by the Obama administration, about obesity among our young. The White House has raised this as a subject of grave national concern, and we rejoice, seeing a parallel.
Back in the Paleozoic age of TV advertising, tobacco companies were forced to fund anti-smoking ads aimed at children. Children nagged smoking adults to quit. Parents hid cigarettes from disapproving progeny. But cigarette ads no longer are permitted on network TV and thus there is no coordinated industry-funded anti-smoking ad campaign aimed at children. States still collect about $25 billion a year from the federal government's 1998 agreement with the tobacco industry and taxes but spend only 2 percent on anti-smoking efforts, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Last year the federal Centers for Disease Control conducted a three-month general anti-smoking campaign, resulting in 100,000 adults quitting, according to the Lancet medical journal. The campaign cost $54 million, compared with $8.8 billion spent on advertising by the tobacco industry. The moral? Media campaigns work. Adult smoking has declined, although the National Cancer Institute says that it still accounts for 90 percent of lung-cancer deaths among men and 80 percent among women.
Having looked at such evidence, President Obama, who told a UN official that he hasn't smoked for several years because he's scared of his wife's disapproval, heartily approved Michelle Obama's current campaign to reduce childhood obesity.
Children are twice as likely to be overweight as they were in 1980 and adolescents are three times more likely to be too fat as in 1980, according to the National Institutes of Health. Other countries are paying attention. Britain forbids the advertising of food high in fat, salt and sugar to children under 16. The Economist magazine reports that Mexican children watch 12,000 commercials for junk food every year, prompting the Mexican government to take steps to ban such ads in the afternoons, evenings and on weekends. Quebec bans all advertising aimed at children.
But there will be no government move any time soon to curb advertising to children.
Despite Republican sentiment that government is too heavy-handed when it comes to regulating business, there is no drumbeat for new, extensive federal regulation on such social issues. Although it may seem obvious that watching commercials causes children to demand junk food, there has been no overwhelming research blaming such commercials for obesity. At most it's seen as one cause among many, such as the prevalence and relatively cheap cost of high-fat, high-sugar foods.
That leaves the issue of what children put in their mouths mainly up to parents, who collectively are fighting a losing battle on obesity. Carefully explaining to a 2 1/2-year-old in the supermarket that spinach and broccoli are "yum-o," a mother the other day got this solemn declaration: "No, Mommy. Not yum-o."
Mrs. Obama, do your thing. We need you to keep the pressure on to educate more of us and heap shame on companies clogging little bodies with worthless calories.
Just leave the leftover turkey, pie and Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs to the adults.
Ann McFeatters is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune Information Services