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Alcohol, Then Tobacco. Now Fast Food?

Chain restaurants, despite their efforts, face mounting pressure to curb marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Are outright fast-food bans next?

Douglas MacMillan
July 1, 2009

New York City Councilman Eric Gioia is drafting a bill that would forbid fast-food chains from opening new restaurants within one-tenth of a mile of city schools. Gioia cites a recent study's finding that when schools in California are that close to hamburgers and french fries, the student obesity rate is likely to be 5.2% higher. "Of course there's a degree of personal responsibility here," says Gioia. "But municipalities across the country need to be making it easier to be a good parent and raise healthier kids."

In recent years, public criticism and mountains of data linking obesity, diabetes, and other health problems to the regular consumption of fast food has caused the industry to rethink its entrenched practice of marketing to kids. McDonald's (MCD) now offers apple wedges as a substitute for fries in Happy Meals, and Taco Bell parent Yum! Brands (YUM) has stopped advertising on TV shows aimed at kids 12 and under.

But a growing number of consumer advocates and legislators are concerned that fast-food companies continue to pitch unhealthy eats to children. "In their minds, they've done what they need to do," says Dr. Jennifer Harris of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "In the minds of the people in the public health field who are concerned about kids, there's a long way to go."

Consumer advocates are calling for regulation that would make children off-limits to fast-food marketers, much as they are to alcohol and tobacco companies. "The food and restaurant industry needs to be responsible in how they market to children or else the government will step in and then require them to," says Dr. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Kids See Ads Targeted at Adults

McDonald's and Burger King (BKC) are among the 15 food and beverage companies that have pledged to focus greater advertising resources on healthy foods, part of an initiative spearheaded in 2006 by the Council of Better Business Bureaus [CBBB]. Among principles the companies agree to uphold: Half of all marketing messages aimed at children must include foods that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration defines as healthy; ads must use fewer licensed characters; and advertising must not be placed in schools. "They're very committed to getting it right," says Elaine Kolish, who leads the Children's Food & Beverage Initiative for the CBBB. Her group will report its second annual audit of these companies in July.

Critics say these pledges don't go far enough and lack participation from a few major quick-service operators such as Yum Brands and Subway. Yale's Harris notes that children are routinely exposed to a variety of media that aren't specifically aimed at them -- such as American Idol -- but which contain ad messages that are. "They still can continue to advertise anything they want on general audience programming," she says.

Moreover, such new media as social networking and video-sharing sites on the Web fall outside the definitions maintained by the CBBB. One promotion Wendy's created for Father's Day asked kids to create e-cards for their dads, featuring a Frosty, the chain's popular ice cream snack.

McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud cites the company's commitment to the CBBB pledge, saying "100% of our children's advertising in the U.S. focuses on children's well-being." Yum Brands says it voluntarily changed its TV advertising policy to exclude shows aimed at kids and added healthier options to its menu, such as grilled chicken at KFC.

Strong Brands Triggered Kids' Buying

Studies continue to point out new channels of influence that fast-food companies are using to build relationships with young consumers. In the February study cited by New York's Gioia, researchers at Columbia University and the University of California Berkeley assessed the fitness levels of ninth graders in California schools located near fast-food retailers. Obesity rates were significantly higher in those schools a tenth of a mile or less from fast food -- a statistic that shows how the mere availability of unhealthy food can increase consumption.

Janet Currie, a Columbia economics professor who led the study, says that only those retailers that have strong brand relationships with children appeared to affect them. "It seemed to make a difference whether it was McDonald's next to you rather than a Joe's Pizza next to you," Currie says.

The study recommended that legislators ban certain fast-food chains from opening outlets next door to schools. So far, Currie says, Gioia is the first to begin drafting such a policy.

Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Chain Restaurants, says the study does not take into account such factors as the level of physical education in schools, whether or not schools have a free lunch program, and if they are located in urban or rural environments. "Chain restaurants are viable, legitimate businesses, they're not evil empires. To treat a chain restaurant like a drug dealer is ludicrous and it's very unwarranted," she adds.

Recession Feeds Fast-Food Demand

The federal government may soon take a closer interest in fast-food ads. Jon Leibowitz, the newly appointed chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, issued a statement on the topic last September, writing: "Whether or not food and beverage marketers are part of the problem -- and in my view, we all share some responsibility -- they have to be part of the solution."

Industry critics compare the intent of fast-food companies to that of cigarette makers, who first came under attack for marketing to children decades ago. "Both the tobacco and fast-food industries have clearly identified young people as really important markets for their business," says Patty Lynn, who directs a campaign to reform fast-food marketing for Corporate Accountability International, a Boston watchdog group that also lobbies against Big Tobacco.

Lynn adds that stricter controls are needed now as more Americans frequent fast-food chains to save money. "The short-term value of people buying fast food more regularly is only going to create a heavier burden for individuals and society," she says.

David Kessler, who worked to regulate the tobacco industry during his term as chairman of the Food & Drug Administration in the 1990s, turned his attention to the abuses of the food industry in his new book, The End of Overeating. He says that changing the way unhealthy food is sold will take more than just government policy. "Tobacco was easy to change -- because you can live without that. We can't live without food," he says. "We need to change how America looks at food."






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