Legal but Lethal
FOOD AND BEVERAGE ADVERTISING The Science That Supports a Ban Jeff Ritterman, MD There is a national discussion about the impact of advertising food and beverages to our children. The
overwhelming majority of these ads are for products high in calories, with significant amounts of added sugar. Many health authorities believe that the unhealthy messages that children receive are a leading cause of excess calories. Research studies provide strong support. Children exposed to food advertising while watching television ate 45 percent more junk food than children who watched the same TV program with nonfood ads. At that rate, a child exposed to TV with food ads for 30 minutes a day would gain almost 10 pounds a year. With the rising popularity of social media and video games, the food and beverage industry madmen have found wholly new ways to reach and influence our children and youth. Have you heard of advergames? They are video games with advertisements embedded. They can be found on the webpages of food and beverage companies. Children exposed to advergames with unhealthy food messages embedded (Pop-Tarts and Oreos advergames) ate 56 percent more junk food after playing than those who played an advergame with embedded ads for fruit. A recent study published in Pediatrics showed similar findings. The researchers found that advergames that promote junk food led to increased caloric intake. The evidence that food and beverage ads aimed at children leads to increased consumption seems firmly established. The corollary is that a decrease in food and beverage advertising should lead to less junk food consumption. Research done in Quebec, where there has been a children’s food advertising ban since 1980, has shown exactly that. The Quebec researchers looked at fast-food consumption as a measure of excess calories. Prior research had shown that frequent fast-food ingestion by eleven- to eighteen-year-olds resulted in marked increases in weekly caloric intake. Other research showed that four- to seven-year-olds who regularly frequented fast-food restaurants were twice as likely to be obese as those who did not. The Quebec researchers compared several populations in Quebec with their counterparts in Ontario. They concluded: The current study provides evidence that a ban on advertising targeting children can be effective in lowering or moderating consumption, and estimates of the effect in expenditures suggest that the social-welfare impact of such a ban can be significant. Quebec is not alone. Both Norway and Sweden have instituted similar bans. But what about adults? The research on adults, while sparse, supports the hypothesis that food ads result in excess caloric consumption. WWW.SFMS.ORG
Researchers from the Rudd Center compared adults who watched a TV show with food commercials to those who watched the same show with nonfood commercials. Those who watched the food ads ate significantly more. Those who were on diets consumed the most in response to the food ads. Interestingly, the participants in the experiment were not aware that they were affected. The effects persisted for some time after the TV show was over. Why is food advertised at all? The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that per capita caloric intake increased by 530 calories between 1970 and 2000. It is those extra calories that demonstrate the “success” of the advertising. The research shows that eating junk food in response to food ads happens regardless of whether or not we are hungry. The “genius” of advertising is that we eat even when we are not hungry, and we do so without even being consciously aware of our eating behavior. Advertisers also take advantage of our sense of thirst. We evolved to drink water to maintain our body’s fluid balance. Now we “open happiness” and “live for now” as the soft drink ads tell us to do. Since these sugary drinks do not produce fullness, they bypass a key component of our energy balance system and their calories are not offset by subsequent decreases in consumption. In addition, the large dose of fructose floods the liver and gets converted to unhealthy fats. We now have evidence that excess sugar is linked to tooth decay, obesity, type II diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, cancer, and fatty liver disease. Most beverages and foods advertised are loaded with sugar, raising the question of whether these food ads border on criminality. Should food companies be allowed to expose us, and our children, to ads aimed at increasing their profits even when those ads cause diabetes and heart attacks? We should not underestimate the power of these food ads. I can still remember that “Wonderbread builds strong bodies in eight ways” from watching The Howdy Doody Show in the 1950s. Now, each of us and each of our children must match our wits with the highly paid madmen and their teams of psychologists. It would be a lot wiser and much healthier to simply ban the advertising of food and beverages.
Dr. Jeff Ritterman is the retired chief of Cardiology of Kaiser Richmond Medical Center and a former Richmond City councilman. He led the Richmond Soda Tax Campaign. He is the vice president of the SF chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and serves on the steering committee of the San Francisco Soda Tax effort (www.ChooseHealthSF.com).
JULY/AUGUST 2014 SAN FRANCISCO MEDICINE