Spinning Our Wheels on Food Marketing Regulation

3

November 12, 2012 by hannahemartin1

Let’s talk food marketing regulations and political feasibility.

This may be a “Duh!” statement for some and an “Oh my!” statement for others, but regulation, voluntary or mandatory, of food marketing to children will only happen under Democrats. There—I said it. And it’s actually not all that controversial considering the two parties’ stances on the role of government.

Check out my hypothetical back and forth between a Representative in favor of food marketing regulation (Mrs. Pro) and one who is opposed (Mrs. Anti)—you might find yourself on both sides of the fence.

Discussing the government’s role in nutrition advice

Mrs. Anti: The USDA has already failed to keep America healthy via the dietary guidelines and the guidelines for what would be considered an “unhealthy” food subjected to regulation are even more intrusive. It isn’t possible to make blanket statements about whether a single product is “good” or “bad” for an individual’s health—this should be left up to private citizens and their health professionals. What happened to moderation being key?

Mrs. Pro: These recommendations are not intended to indicate that a food should never be a part of a child’s diet, just that over-consumption of this food is more likely to lead to negative health outcomes. The proposed guidelines “target” saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and high sodium contents, all of which have been linked with varying strengths to obesity or cardiovascular problems.

Discussing previous voluntary changes

Mrs. Anti: This legislation is totally unnecessary. A voluntary commitment in 2006 to reduce food marketing to children by CFBAI member companies has resulted in an 18% decrease in food marketing to children ages 2-5.

Mrs. Pro: These voluntary changes may have results in large percentage decrease, but the result is still very high food marketing to kids. CFBAI companies were among the worst offenders, allowing a high percentage decrease. From 2003 to 2009 their marketing dropped from 8.5 commercials per day to 5.5 for youngsters and 8.5 to 6.5 for older kids. That only sounds good until you consider that non-CFBAI companies were below 2 commercials per day for both time periods.

Discussing the role of government in protecting children

Mrs. Pro: Children are especially susceptible to marketing. They are not yet capable of deciding what is best for their health so we should protect them from being prayed upon by large companies.

Mrs. Anti: This entire scenario ignores the role of the parent. Parents are responsible for what their child is exposed to on TV (entire channels refuse to advertise food to kids) and for what food their children eat. No amount of advertising dollars can remove this barrier.

Discussing freedom of speech

Mrs. Anti: Government regulation of the how, when, and how much of marketing is a dangerous slope to start down. This not only violates food companies’ freedom of speech, but also sets a dangerous precedent for 1st Amendment rights’ violations by the Federal Government.

Mrs. Pro: Mandatory moratoriums have been placed on all TV cigarette advertising and strict rules are in place for alcohol advertising on television. Even if mandatory, food-marketing regulations would be precedented. But as voluntary measures, no court would hold that a suggestion without penalty could violate one’s freedom of speech.

Discussing the ultimate goal of the regulations

Mrs. Pro: America’s children are obese and consume unprecedented amounts of processed foods and beverages while consuming fewer and fewer meals at home with family. Marketing of unhealthy foods to children is just one of the many factors contributing to the childhood obesity crisis.

Mrs. Anti: There is no data that directly links food marketing to obesity in children. If government dollars are to be spent on childhood obesity, we should focus on things with quantifiable links to childhood obesity so we can accurately assess what we are paying for.

Mrs. Pro: Obesity is a complex condition whose root causes are impossible to tease apart. But we can assume that only successful advertisements persist and “successful” for a television ad for a food product means increasing sales. Following the chain of logic, if ads cause an increase in purchases, and the ads are for high fat, high salt, and high sugar foods, and we can link these foods to weight gain, then we can indirectly link food marketing to obesity.

Discussing the “necessary” evidence

Mrs. Anti: We would at least like to see a cost-benefit analysis for limiting advertising to make sure that this regulation won’t result in more government spending and private revenue loss than its hypothetical gains are worth.

Mrs. Pro: Despite our obsession with cost-benefit analyses and ROI calculations, these are poor measures of public health success. Over the past 30 years, we have undeniably gotten ourselves into an obesity epidemic. Regardless of how we got here, it is unrealistic to expect that the solution to such a grave problem will have no net cost. There is something to be said for the health of a nation outside of its monetary value. It is also not mathematically possible to do an accurate cost-benefit analysis of a voluntary regulation. There are zero required costs. If companies find their voluntary compliance to be disastrous for their bottom line, they are free to return to business as normal. And benefits would be seen so many decades down the line that any economist would be kidding herself if she said she could accurately predict the health cost savings.

Thanks for reading! If I missed any major arguments from either side of the issue, please leave your own “back-and-forth” in the comments or feel free to pose a good one-sided question that I’ll take a stab at rebutting.

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3 thoughts on “Spinning Our Wheels on Food Marketing Regulation

  1. lschoenfeld says:

    That was a really cool way to present the issue, Hannah. I enjoyed reading it!
    However, the way you discussed it actually made me lean towards the “Mrs. Anti” argument. I’m not sure if extra government regulations on advertising are going to make a major impact on childhood obesity. If the program is voluntary, it’s impossible to enforce. And if the program is mandatory, that’s going to cost money and time to implement. Our economy is in a pretty horrendous state at the moment and I personally believe the government (and our debt) needs to get smaller, not larger. We can’t afford to do experimental government programs that may not end up making any difference despite the money we spend on them. So I think doing a cost-benefit analysis is a legitimate request.
    The fact is, even though I would ideally like to see junk food advertising to children be reduced, I don’t know if it’s going to make much of a difference in childhood obesity. There are probably much better ways to spend government money on this effort, such as changing subsidies to support non-commodity crops or providing more nutrition and physical education in public schools. At the end of the day though, parents are making the choice to buy certain foods for their kids, and I’m not sure if eliminating advertising aimed at children is going to significantly change purchasing habits of parents. At least enough to change the BMI of their children.
    I think getting Americans to make major changes in dietary habits is going to take much more than simply regulating the food advertising industry. If we had a better economic situation, I’d be all for the program. However, based on the current economic climate in America, I think there are better ways our tax money can be spent in preventing childhood obesity.

    • Well that is indeed the Republican view on the issue, hence my initial statement that regulation will only happen under Democrats. There’s rarely a “right” answer in policy discussions (at least few assertions that can be prospectively proven right) and this is just one potential piece to combatting the childhood obesity epidemic.

      I will make once reply to a point you made though. You noted that voluntary regulations would be impossible to enforce, but voluntary regulations are never intended to be enforced–hence being voluntary. I find it interesting that you acknowledged that punitive enforcement is necessary to get corporations to change devient business practices.

  2. Well that is indeed the Republican view on the issue, hence my initial statement that regulation will only happen under Democrats. There’s rarely a “right” answer in policy discussions (at least few assertions that can be prospectively proven right) and this is just one potential piece to combatting the childhood obesity epidemic.

    I will make once reply to a point you made though. You noted that voluntary regulations would be impossible to enforce, but voluntary regulations are never intended to be enforced–hence being voluntary. I find it interesting that you acknowledged that punitive enforcement is necessary to get corporations to change devient business practices.

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