Does TV advertising make children fat? : what the evidence tells us.
Public policy research, 13
There is growing public concern over rising levels of obesity among children, in the UK and many other countries in the developed world, as World Health Organisation reports have warned (as illustrated by 2003). The Royal College of Physicians reports that obesity has doubled among two to four year olds between 1989 and 1998, and trebled among six to fifteen year olds between 1990 and 2002. Similarly, in the USA, obesity among six to nineteen year olds has trebled over the past four decades, to 16 per cent in 1999-2002, while the incidence of type 2 diabetes has doubled in the past decade, with notable increases also in the risk of heart disease, stroke, circulatory problems, some cancers, osteoporosis and blindness. The evidence of rising obesity, it seems, is beyond question. The explanation is less clear. The USA’s Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth observed in their major report to Congress (2005), children’s diets “result from the interplay of many factors… all of which, apart from genetic predispositions, have undergone significant transformations over the past three decades”. In other words, researchers are generally agreed that multiple factors account for childhood obesity, including individual, social, environmental and cultural factors (Story, Neumark-Sztainer, & French, 2002). These factors are, for the most part, subject to change, and many of them interact with each other in complex ways not yet well understood. One consequence is that policy decisions regarding intervention are highly contested, for multiple stakeholders, with competing interests, are involved. It is in this context that this essay focuses on just one putative explanation for childhood obesity, namely food promotion, particularly television advertising of foods high in fact, salt or sugar. It asks one key question: is the evidence base linking advertising to children’s health sufficient to guide policy decisions?
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