Bad tack on child obesity

Finally, Congress is doing something smart. Well, almost.

Two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee met recently to discuss proposed “voluntary” guidelines that would restrict the marketing of food to children and adolescents.

The original proposal called for a cease-and-desist on certain marketing techniques that many consider cross-generational cultural icons, such as Tony the Tiger and the Trix rabbit.

These characters would have been banned from commercials, digital marketing, sales displays and sponsorships on television shows like “American Idol,” because the foods and beverages they’re associated with are deemed too unhealthy to market to children.

The Interagency Working Group  that proposed these guidelines earlier this year — composed of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission — has since walked back on some of the proposals.

In the October congressional hearing, agency officials backed down from their initial proposals that would have classified many of the foods encouraged by the USDA’s healthy school lunch program as unmarketable to children.

The officials admitted that extending these guidelines to display marketing and cartoon brands was unreasonable, as was trying to restrict marketing and sponsorships at sporting and charity events.  They also discussed narrowing the age range, from the very broad 2-17 years to 2-11 years of age.

While committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and committee members are to be applauded for taking on this issue, the fact remains that the guidelines proposed by the Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children will do nothing to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity in America, precisely because there is no proven correlation between food marketing and obesity rates.

Furthermore, the government has no place trying to regulate what parents feed their children. What these guidelines will do, if enforced, is make even healthy products like Cheerios more expensive, thanks to companies having to reformulate them to meet new nutritional standards or stop marketing them altogether.  

Simply stated, the “scaled back” guidelines are still a losing bet.  While the revised set of recommendations seem somewhat more reasonable, spending years of taxpayer money proposing allegedly nonbinding recommendations on the advertising of foods to children does nothing to address the root causes of our nation’s obesity problem. Is this really smart government?

What the development of these government guidelines proves is that there is no interest in doing the hard work it will take to deal with the root causes of America’s childhood obesity problem: poverty, education, access to healthy and affordable food and increased physical activity.

How can we begin to preach healthy habits until the families most at-risk for obesity can actually access better options?

Couple that with children’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles — the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children ages 8 to 18 watch an average of 4.5 hours of television per day — and you have a recipe for obese children who more often than not grow up to be obese adults.

Unfortunately, they’re not getting the physical activity they need in school, either. Only 3.8 percent of elementary schools and 7.9 percent of middle schools are providing daily physical education classes.

Nearly everyone, on both sides of this debate, can agree that childhood obesity is a serious problem in our country. A far more productive solution, however, would involve encouraging schools to reinstate daily physical education programs; making healthy, affordable foods available in low-income communities; and encouraging more public-private ventures like first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy and an MSNBC political analyst.

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