Childhood Obesity: Tackling a National Epidemic

Sam Ali, DiversityInc, May 3rd, 2010

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By Sam Ali, Senior Business Editor

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The percentage of obese and overweight children between the ages of 10 and 17 is at or above 30 percent in 30 states, according to a recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America."

Obese children and teenagers are developing obesity-related diseases including diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes that were formerly only seen in adults, the report said.

*For instance, approximately 176,500 people under the age of 20 have Type 2 diabetes, and 2 million adolescents ages 12—19 have pre-diabetes

*The percentage of obese and overweight children (ages 10 to 17) is at or above 30 percent in 30 states. Mississippi had the highest rate of obese and overweight children at 44.4 percent "Overall, this generation of children could be the first to have shorter, less healthy lives than their parents,'' the report said.

Yale University obesity researcher Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, believes food advertising plays a big role in the food choices that children make and subsequent rising tide of childhood obesity.

In an effort to develop lifetime brand loyalties and capture market share, the food industry "spends over $1.6 billion per year in the U.S. to market their products directly to young people," according to the Rudd Center. The overwhelming majority of these ads are for unhealthy products, high in calories, sugar, fat and/or sodium.

McDonald's pioneered the practice of marketing to children, according to Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based consumer-advocacy group that has launched a campaign calling on McDonald's to retire Ronald McDonald as a spokesperson for the nation's largest restaurant chain.

"In 1963, rookie television announcer Willard Scott suited up as Ronald McDonald and the clown made its own commercial debut," the report says.

"Though hard to imagine as extraordinary today given the ubiquity of advertising to children, in his first commercial Ronald made a direct appeal not to potential adult patrons but to children. The approach bucked all marketing conventions … and it worked."

In the words of Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's, "a child who loves our TV commercials and brings her grandparents to a McDonald's gives us two more customers."

"No icon has ever been more effective in hooking kids on a harmful product," according to Stacey Folsom, the national spokesperson for Corporate Accountability International, which also waged campaigns against tobacco companies and was behind the effort to retire Joe Camel from Camel cigarettes. "Kids have become more obese and less healthy on his watch. He's a deep-fried Joe Camel for the 21st century. He deserves a break, and so do our kids. This clown is no friend to our children or their health."

McDonald's also pioneered the practice of putting its restaurants near–and inside–schools. The first McDonald's to open inside a high school opened in 1976 in Benton, Ark. Today, a quarter of the nation's high schools sell branded fast food, according to Corporate Accountability International.

Author Eric Schlosser in his 2001 investigative book "Fast Food Nation" said it's no coincidence that the little pieces of fast food are wrapped up like presents, or that restaurant chains appeal to children's minds by employing "bright colors, a playground, a toy, a clown, a drink with a straw."

McDonald's operates more than 8,000 playgrounds——more playgrounds than any other private entity in the United States–and is the largest toy distributor in the world, according to attorney Jonathan Scott Goldman in a paper published in the Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review comparing the tobacco and fast-food industries. Burger King operates more than 2,000 playgrounds.

"When Burger King created its 'Kids Club' in 1991, sales of children's meals tripled," says Goldman. "Ninety percent of children aged 3 to 9 eat at a McDonald's at least once per month and 96 percent of American schoolchildren can identify Ronald McDonald——the highest rate of recognition for any fictional character other than Santa Claus."

"We take Joe Camel off the advertising billboard because it is marketing bad products to our children … but Ronald McDonald is considered cute," says Brownell. "How different are they in their impact, in what they are trying to get kids to do?"

Goldman said that "in terms of society's goals of protecting children from harm they cannot understand, Joe Camel and Ronald McDonald may turn out to be, legally, quite similar."

At the same time, soft-drink giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group have dangled cash and other incentives in front of cash-strapped schools for decades in return for the right to sell sodas other sugary beverages in vending machines inside schools, says Michele Simon, author of the book "Appetite for Profit."

To compensate for cuts in educational and athletic programs, many school districts sign what are known as exclusive "pouring rights" contracts with these soft-drink companies. In exchange for large upfront payments, school districts agree to sell only one company's products in vending machines and at all school events and to prominently display advertising and marketing materials on school grounds.

"Soda companies make the deals seem like a charitable donation when the reality is that schools benefit far less than the companies do," says Simon. "Sometimes these contracts can lock a district in for many years with the same vendor and the same unhealthy options. Usually the amount of money a school district receives is dependent on soda sales, thus creating a conflict of interest between health and profit."

Recently, the soft-drink industry cut the number of high-calorie soft drinks sold in schools in response to the growing threat of lawsuits and state legislation. But other sugary drinks, including diet sodas, Gatorade, juice drinks and sweetened milk, are still being sold in their place.

"You only need to read the language of an exclusive soda contract with a school to understand that the companies call all the shots, making such decisions as what products are sold and how much is sold, even down to the number of ounces," says Simon. "Also, the very nature of an exclusive contract restricts choice because schools cannot bring in healthier beverages from other vendors without risking violating the contract."

Simon said that while it's true that school districts are in desperate need of money, she does not believe the solution to that problem is load children up on soda and junk food and other products that make them sick.

"We shouldn't be trading children's health for after-school programs," she says.

White House Weighs In on Obesity

In February, Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move initiative, which is designed to get healthier foods in schools, give parents support to make healthier choices for their children, and get families up off the couch and active together. One important aspect of the program is focused on getting healthy, affordable food available in every part of the country.

As part of her initiative, Michelle Obama is urging the nation's largest food companies to speed up efforts to make healthier foods and reduce the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. "We need you not to just tweak around the edges but entirely rethink the products you are offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children," she says