November 11, 2012 by jaherber
Unhealthy foods and bad eating habits have contributed enormously to rising childhood obesity rates in the United States. In an effort to curtail this rise, both private sector food vendors and government agencies have agreed that something needs to be done. Groups like the government appointed Interagency Working Group (IWG), consisting of the FDA, USDA, CDC and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as well as, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which consists of a coalition comprised of the Better Business Bureau along with 16 top food and beverage distributors, have been established and proactively inspired to develop self regulating guidelines to promote a better advertising environment for children. The IWG has two guiding principles that it seeks to adopt: a) help guide kids to healthy food options and b) lead them away from unhealthy foods high in saturated fats, sodium, sugar and trans fats. Similarly, the CFBAI seeks to not only promote healthier food choices, but also add stipulations that ask members of the coalition to refrain from using popular movie characters, magazines or kid purposed media. On the surface, these all seem like solid solutions to the problem and will go a long way to aiding in the ongoing fight against childhood obesity. However, there is always grey area when it comes to enforcement versus financial bottom lines. As we all know, every company is in business to make money. No one can argue or blame them in that regard, so the next question that begs to be asked is, how truly committed are these companies to achieving real change? The voluntary two fold regulations that the IWG want to pass have been held up in political gridlock, according to a Washington Post Article, partly because the food and beverage vendors are afraid of it being what they call a “backdoor regulation” that will spell doom for children’s advertising and ultimately cost millions of jobs for their employees while also “infringing on commercial free speech.” Though an extreme position, given that these guidelines are completely voluntary, the second hindrance of there being no cost-benefit information available to substantiate the validity of any regulations does give a bit more credence to the vendors’ stance. Despite the fact that I consider myself more in favor of the regulatory changes on the basis of moral responsibility, even I cannot blame them for wanting to protect their own interests before embarking on a campaign that could possibly cost them more money without guarantee of a health benefit change.
I think we all agree that food advertisements geared towards children should be responsibly monitored; however this topic goes deeper than that. It also delves into the age old debates of private sector liberties versus government regulation and economic impact versus moral obligation. Who’s right? I wish I knew, but it seems as though the main missing ingredient here is data. As stated in the previously mentioned Washington Post article, the one hurdle that is limiting the forward progress of the IWG voluntary guidelines is a true cost-benefit analysis. Information is always the pathway to change. Once the government delivers on the cost-benefit analysis of the initiative, only then will we truly know how dedicated to change the food and beverage vendors are. Let’s hope that they are willing to keep up their end and maybe all of the sides in the above mentioned debates can be satisfied.