By Susan Heavey
Most food and drink advertising to children promotes unhealthy choices and can lead to poor diets, experts said on Tuesday in a report recommending that the government step in if the industry doesn't act.
"There is strong evidence that television advertising influences the diets of children. No question," said Dr. Michael McGinnis, a senior scholar at the Institute of Medicine, which conducted the review.
Studies also suggest that marketing can lead to higher rates of body fat, though more evidence is need, the independent, nonprofit body that advises the government said.
Last year, the food and beverage industry spent about $11 billion in advertising, including $5 billion on television commercials, mostly for high-calorie products with little nutritional value.
Children were a willing audience for the ads.
Promotions led children ages 2 to 11 to ask for certain products, and kids aged 4 and younger could not tell the difference between television advertisements and programming, the report said. Those 8 and younger did not understand that commercials are meant to persuade.
The impact on teen-agers was less clear, because too little research has been done, the report found.
The team of nearly 20 media and health experts came to its conclusions after reviewing 123 published studies and industry information, at a time when more Americans, of all ages, are getting fatter.
About 16 percent of U.S. children and teen-agers, or more than 9 million, are obese -- compared with 5 percent in the 1960s.
The number of young people with type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity, also is on the rise.
Sen. Tom Harkin (news, bio, voting record), an Iowa Democrat who pushed legislation requiring the $1 million study, said the "report proves that the onslaught of junk-food marketing is endangering the health of our children."
The experts also found companies are increasingly targeting children through the Internet, product placement and other activities.
The group called for a nationwide campaign to educate families about healthy foods, national standards for school food choices, and expanded industry guidelines to monitor the Internet and other nontraditional ad venues.
Some food companies have taken some positive steps, the panelists noted.
If industry efforts do not work, Congress should force companies to promote healthier choices, they said. U.S. officials should monitor progress and update lawmakers in two years.
"We think that the issues confronting the health and well being of America's children, particularly with respect to childhood obesity ... require an 'all hands on deck' effort," McGinnis told reporters.
Food and beverage industry groups have rejected the idea of government restrictions, saying consumers should make their own choices.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said many of its members have already taken action, such as improving food labels and promoting healthier lifestyles.
Consumer groups welcomed the findings, but some expressed doubts about companies' willingness to cut back their profits by curbing junk food ads. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and Commercial Alert said Congress should not wait on industry changes before it acts.
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