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Restore FTC Authority to Regulate Food and Beverage Marketing Aimed at Children
Policy: Enact legislation restoring the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) authority to regulate advertising of unhealthful foods to children.

Intended Outcome: The purpose of this policy is to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthful foods, especially television advertising, thus reducing their demand for and consumption of those foods. This policy would give the federal government a means to accomplish this goal. Restoring FTC authority would give the FTC the means to accomplish this if the food industry does not take substantive voluntary action to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.

Burden Addressed: Over the past 30 years, the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled for children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and tripled for children aged 6-11 years.1 Over-consumption of fat- and calorie-laden foods and beverages is known to contribute to obesity, particularly when combined with a sedentary lifestyle. 1

Background: Research has shown that taste preferences, eating habits, and knowledge of brands and products form early in life. The majority of products introduced and marketed to children and youth are unhealthful (i.e., high in sugars, sodium, total calories, and fat, and low in nutrients). Food and beverage television advertising to children is problematic because unlike adults, children have difficulty distinguishing between commercial and programmatic content on television and understanding the selling intent of marketing messages. Due to these cognitive inabilities, it can be argued that advertising to children can be deceptive and misleading.2

The FTC has primary responsibility for ensuring advertising is not deceptive or unfair. In the late 1970s, FTC proposed banning television advertising of sugary foods aimed at young children because children are too young to understand the health risks of excessive sugar consumption. After three years of public comment, FTC staff recommended terminating the rulemaking proceeding because a workable solution could not be found. Congress strongly criticized the proposal and allowed FTC’s funding to lapse, then passed a law in 1980 prohibiting FTC from using unfairness as a basis for adopting any rule to regulate advertising to children.3 The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), a self-regulatory program established in 1974 and funded by the children’s advertising industry, reviews children’s advertisements for deception or unfairness.4 However, CARU does not limit the volume of advertisements aimed at children and their current guidelines do not address the nutritional content of advertised foods or beverages.

Stronger regulation of children’s advertising of unhealthful foods is being revisited due to increasing rates of childhood obesity. Many health organizations support restoring FTC’s authority to rule on television advertising to children, arguing that the food and beverage industries have not done enough voluntarily to curb the abundance of unhealthful food advertisements to which children are exposed. Congress recently asked FTC to study the food and beverage industries’ marketing activities to children, indicating a growing receptivity to this issue.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report in December 2005 recommending greater self-regulatory efforts to emphasize healthier food and beverages in children’s television advertisements.2 The IOM further recommends that Congress enact legislation mandating children’s advertising on broadcast and cable television emphasizes healthier foods and beverages if voluntary efforts fail.

Other countries have restricted television advertising of unhealthful foods to children. Sweden and Norway banned all food advertising to children on local television stations.2 In November 2006, the UK broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, enacted a similar ban on all foods high in fat, salt and sugar that extends to cable and satellite children’s stations.3

Evidence/Effectiveness: A robust body of evidence demonstrates that food and beverage advertisements negatively impact children’s nutrition and contribute to obesity. Recently, a systematic review of 123 studies conducted by the Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth concluded that: 1) there is strong evidence that television advertising influences the food and beverage preferences of children aged 2-11 years; 2) there is strong evidence that television advertising influences short-term consumption among children aged 2-11 years; and 3) there is strong evidence that exposure to television advertising is associated with adiposity in children and youth aged 2-18 years.2


Footnotes:

     
  1. Institute of Medicine. Preventing childhood obesity. Health in the balance. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2005.
     
     
  2. Institute of Medicine. Food marketing to children and youth: threat or opportunity? Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2005.
     
     
  3. Office of Communications. New restrictions on the television advertising of food and drink products to children [press release]. November 17, 2006. Available at http://www.ofcom.org.uk/media/news/2006/11/nr_20061117. Accessed December 15, 2006.
     
     
  4. Children’s Advertising Review Unit. Self-regulatory program for children’s advertising. Available at: http://www.caru.org/guidelines/guidelines.pdf. Accessed December 20, 2006.