Who is Responsible for the Rise in Childhood Obesity?

For kids, the appeal of sweets, sugary sodas and artery-clogging burgers has a lot to do with their exposure to advertising — they see it, they want it. And despite ongoing efforts from federal health agencies and advocacy groups, children are still seeing too much televised promotion of unhealthy foods.

That’s the message from a new study that sought to evaluate the content of food advertising aimed at children, and to gauge changes in ad exposure from 2003 to 2007.

That’s a key time frame. In the past decade, several comprehensive studies have concluded that TV ads have a powerful effect on children’s eating habits. The research spurred the Better Business Bureau to launch the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an effort to rein in the promotional powers of food companies.

By 2006, 10 companies, including Coca-Cola and Kraft, had vowed to limit advertising aimed at kids to foods that passed their own self-designed “nutritional standards.”

But the program, thus far, has mostly changed the kinds of junk being promoted.

The study determined that exposure to ads for soda and candy dropped significantly. For example, kids age 2 to 5 were exposed to 41 percent fewer ads for sweets.

Unfortunately, exposure to fast-food ads increased. That same age group viewed 4.7 percent more ads for convenience food, and kids age 12 to 17 viewed 20.4 percent more.

“Despite the industry’s self-regulatory system, the vast majority of food and entertainment companies have no protections in place for children,” Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The New York Times of the initiative.

The study also reached troubling conclusions about the growing racial gap that’s affecting children’s health. In 2007, African-Americans saw 1.4 to 1.6 times more food ads than white children — fast food in particular. “African-American children and teens had more than double the rate of increase in exposure to fast-food ads compared with their white counterparts,” the study reads.

The links among food advertising, childhood obesity and race already have been well-established. In February, a study out of UCLA’s School of Public Health determined that exposure to TV commercials for junk food was directly related to elevated body mass indexes among kids and teens. And given that African-American youth are most likely to be overweight, and often lack easy access to healthy food, they’re exceptionally vulnerable to the sway of televised promotion.

It’s unlikely that American kids, who watch an average of 3 1/2 hours of television a day, are going to turn off the tube anytime soon. Which leaves public health experts to determine how best to regulate what children see.

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