Back in 2009, the Coca Cola Co. announced that it would print calorie information on most of its packaging. Some saw the move as a declaration of war on obesity. Reuters, though, reported that Coke’s move was meant “to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet as a way to fight the possibility of a soft drink tax.” More recently, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, tried to impose limits on large sugary beverages.

Tax or no tax – and, a state supreme court judge says, keep those super-sized soft drinks coming, New York — obesity remains a critical problem in America, especially among America’s youth. So much so that, a couple of months ago, Dr. Glenn D. Braunstein, VP of Clinical Innovation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, penned a piece for the Huffington Post in which he called for a ban on junk-food advertising aimed at kids.

The problem, Braunstein suggests, is that kids will do whatever the likes of SpongeBob SquarePants tell them to do – blindly wolfing down helping after helping of Go-Gurt, Mac & Cheese and Popsicles simply because SpongeBob’s smiling mug is plastered somewhere on the package. Moreover, Braunstein argues, food companies, acutely aware of what influences kids, are using “pester power” to bombard kids with ads that essentially cheer them on to a life of bad eating habits.

The proof is in the Snack Pack

More than a third of kids and teens today are considered overweight, says Braunstein, who cites the following statistics to back up his call for action:

  • Food and beverage companies spent $1.8 billion marketing directly to children and teens in 2009, according to the Federal Trade Commission. While that’s 15% less than was spent in 2006, Braunstein says advertisers aren’t getting softer. Just smarter: “Interactive game websites for kids, Internet advertising, and product placement in movies, video games and TV shows are their new pathways.”
  • Fast-food restaurants spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009, and are also getting into the stealth act, taking advantage of mobile banner ads, smartphone apps, and ads in text messages.
  • The average toddler views almost three fast-food advertisements every day; children ages 6-11 see slightly more than that; and, teenagers take in almost five, says a study by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
  • With some kids asking as often as every day to be taken to fast-food restaurants, 84 percent of parents report having given in, taking kids ages 2- 11 to a franchised artery-clogger at least once during the previous week.

Big Brother vs. Mary Poppins

Braunstein goes on to say that marketing junk food to kids is even more out-of-bounds because of research showing that children under 8 years can’t tell advertised fact from fiction.

And TV and print are apparently only part of the scourge. With 8 in 10 kids under 5 using the Internet on a weekly basis, interactive game sites from food companies are a popular destination. What five-year-old is going to think that the Trix Rabbit would ever steer them wrong? And what could possibly be bad about something called a Happy Meal? That comes with a toy, sometimes one you can shoot at your sister?

Sweden and Norway apparently don’t want anyone under 12 finding out – at least not through ads. Both countries prohibit ads aimed at kids younger than that, says Braunstein. Denmark and Belgium place major restrictions on child-focused advertising. And Canada’s province of Quebec banned fast-food advertising to children in TV and print – 35 years ago. Sales of fast food there have supposedly gone down by some 13 percent since – hardly a ringing endorsement, although, Braunstein points out, “the childhood obesity rate in Quebec is significantly lower than the national average.” Must be all those tourists ordering the burgers and fries.

Pass the sanity, please

Should governments even attempt to legislate what people eat? That’s a hot topic, and understandably so. If the government requires health insurance for everyone, it stands to reason that insurers cannot be expected to provide equal coverage for people who make unhealthy eating choices. Then again, that whole idea raises the specter of the Nanny State. Plus, shouldn’t kids be allowed to be kids, while they can? Which includes enjoying a few pizzas and banana splits along the way?

Believe it or not, the Internet actually has some good advice to offer — from none other than WebMD — on how to help kids recognize and not be sucked in by junk-food ads:

  • Put limits on food marketing to kids by limiting screen time, both by placing a cap on total amount of time spent in front of a TV or computer, and by using a DVR to record shows, thereby allowing you to fast-forward through the commercials (and increasing a kid’s quality screen time…an effective, if slightly devious, trick).
  • Be involved – lay down the law around food marketing. Watch commercials with your children and exert control, which doesn’t necessarily mean going thermonuclear over a piece of licorice.
  • Analyze it: learn how to judge food advertisements, including how to teach different-aged children effective techniques to make better decisions. What works for preschoolers doesn’t stand a chance with tweens…but you knew that, right?

Maybe the best advice of all, though, comes from the Kingdom of Common Sense: While monitoring the ads and temptations that filter into your child’s electronic world, have a say in what your kids eat, and practice good eating habits yourself.

The fruit, after all, still doesn’t fall very far from the tree.

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