Institute of Medicine on Advertising and Children's Obesity:

A few weeks ago, the Institute of Medicine released a new report which has been reported to conclude that the rise in children's obesity in the United States can be attributed at least in part to advertising of junk food and fast food. According to the Washington Post:

Food and beverage companies are using television ads to entice children into eating massive amounts of unhealthful food, leading to a sharp increase in childhood obesity and diabetes, a national science advisory panel said yesterday.

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, called on food and beverage manufacturers and restaurants to make more healthful products and shift their advertising emphasis to promote them. If the companies do not do so within two years, Congress should mandate changes, especially for broadcast and cable television ads, the institute said.

"There is strong evidence that exposure to television advertising is associated with" obesity, the government-chartered institute said in a congressionally requested report to determine the effects of food advertising on children's health. The report said most of the food and beverage products promoted to children are high in calories, sugar, salt and fat and low in nutrients.

I haven't read the full report yet, so I won't comment on it extensively here. Richard Posner and Gary Becker have an exchange on their blog, which is reproduced here. I assume that they are commenting on the general issue, not the voluminous IOM Report, which they do not seem to address directly.

As readers will be aware, I published a co-authored article on the topic last year that concluded that based on the data available at that time, the evidence fails to support the conclusion that advertising is contributing to the rise in children's obesity. The article is available here. The article also contains an exhaustive summary of the literature available on the possible causes of rising rates of childhood obesity.

Updated research from the FTC that reinforces the conclusions of our initial study was presented this summer by Pauline Ippolito fo the FTC and is available here.

Becker refers to a PhD dissertation by a newly-minted Chicago grad, which is available here. He concludes that the evidence fails to support the conclusion that the increase in children's obesity can be blamed on changes in diet (i.e., greater consumption of junk food or fast food), but rather a decrease in physical activity resulting from increased computer and video game use.

I hope to have time to read the IOM study over my break, but if not, I thought it would be useful for those following the issue to be aware of the developments related to the IOM report.

M (mail):
Is the claim of the study refered to by Becker that kids don't eat more junk food now than they did, or that this is swamped by not playing as much? One thing that is shocking when returning to the US from time abroad is how much fatter the kids are. Even in a country like Russia, which is over-all nearly as fat as the US, there are almost no fat kids. Some of this is obviously due to playing more actively. But, it's also quite obviouse that they eat less junk food, and when they do it it, the portions are smaller. It would be hard to see this not having a roll, I'd guess.
12.21.2005 9:33am
Cynicus Prime (mail) (www):
The only thing that leads to childhood obesity is parental negligence.
12.21.2005 10:09am
Roger (mail):

The only thing that leads to childhood obesity is parental negligence.

It is this kind of research and legal analysis, combined with carefully defined terms that made America great.
12.21.2005 10:48am
Pitman (mail):
I quickly looked over the information at the IOM website and they have some very interesting information. A few comments. First, the IOM claims that the number of children who are thin is relatively unchanged, it is that those who were overweight are more overweight than they were in the past. A little extra around the middle is now a lot extra everywhere. Also there is a clear issue of race in this question, meaning that according to all of the statistics childhood obesity is significantly worse in minority populations. Any attempt to tackle the issue must acknowledge this and ask why is it so.Finally, regarding the decline in exercise, sports, etc. as causing childhood obesity, I was trying to find figures on changes of caloric intake of children but I couldn't. While this may be a factor, it needs to be examined how much the actual decline in caloric expenditure which may no longer present b/c of a decline in these activities can account for the observed increase in obesity.
12.21.2005 11:06am
gvibes (mail):
To add to Mr. Pitman's point, I had recently read that the life expectancy of an African-American born in Africa is 9 years longer than that of an African-American born in the states, suggesting some significant cultural propensities towards, if not obesity, then unhealthy habits generally.

Also, I happen to think that Cynicus' comments aren't all that far from the truth.

12.21.2005 11:14am
Houston Lawyer:
Wow, a link between how much time some one sits on his duff watching TV and his subsequent obesity. Next they will find a link between those who run 5 miles a day and knee problems.

Some children will always be thin. As a teenager who drank malted weight gain drinks without effect, I can attest to that. However I must concur with the observation (following my daughter's Christmas play last week) that those who might have been chubby 30 years ago now outweigh thin adults by the fourth grade. I will also second the observation that this strikes particularly hard on minority children. While I saw obese white children as well, a clear majority of Black and Hispanic children present were obese.
12.21.2005 11:22am
amn (mail):
Fast food and junk food companies don't advertise during cartoons and other children's shows for no reason. Unless we assume that marketers for Captain Crunch, McDonald's, etc. are completely irrational, of course advertising leads to fatter kids. The real question is whether or not there is anything we can or should do about it.
12.21.2005 11:28am
Cynicus Prime (mail) (www):
You can mock my simple statement all you want, but unless I missed a recent lowering of the driving age to 5, it is parents who take their children to fast food establishments.
12.21.2005 11:50am
Bob Smith (mail):
I wonder if the reduction or elimination of recess in schools due to liability fears (thanks for nothing, plaintiff's bar) has anything to do with this.
12.21.2005 3:49pm
Zywicki (mail):
You make a good point that is often overlooked. It turns out that the children's obesity problem is largely a problem that the extreme tail is getting thicker, rather than an increase in the median. In my presentation I gave at Cato I have two slides, available here and here, that show the thickening at the tail. The median weight for kids has only risen about 4.5% over the past two decades and the median weight at the 95th percentile has risen almost 20%.

I think that the issue is a much different one, and the possible solutions much different, if we analyze it as a problem that primarily negatively affects a relatively small subset of the relevant population a lot. Regulating the advertising of certain foods to all kids, for instance, seems like a questionable response if the problem is a specific subset of the population.
12.21.2005 4:18pm
Zywicki (mail):
To add one more word about the slides: On each slide the top is adults the bottom is kids. You can see that both the median the right tail have risen for adults. For kids, however, it is primarily the tail that has changed, while the median remains largely unchanged.

To my mind, the key slide in the presentation is this one.
12.21.2005 4:49pm
I see the reason to highlight findings that one type of product and/or product marketing — junk food — does not impact a health problem. The reason for this is to demonstrate that consumers are rational and relatively resistant to advertising, and will not engage in harmful behavior simply because of marketing.

However, I don't see the reason for then highlighting the possible connection between another type of product — electronic entertainment — and a health problem. That would undermine the idea that consumers are rational, since they seem to be choosing products and activities that are harmful, at least partly in response to advertising. Why mention this?
12.21.2005 5:40pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
I think there are a number of factors at work here. When I was a child, I grew up on a block where there were a number of boys my own age. When were not in school, and the weather was not too bad, we were played games outside. No adult supervision or instruction was involved. Since then a number of factors have come into play. In no particular order, the percentage of the population that are children has dropped so that there are less likely to be same age/sex children close by, many children are in day care because both parents are working, many parents are fearful of allowing children to play outside unsupervised because of a perception of of danger of child molestation/kidnapping, many children only participate in games and sports through organized groups, instead of spontaneous play.

All of these factors favor solitary indoor pursuits over outdoors games.
12.21.2005 9:03pm
"You can mock my simple statement all you want, but unless I missed a recent lowering of the driving age to 5, it is parents who take their children to fast food establishments."

Unfortunately, that is not the case anymore. An increasing number of school districts have turned their lunch programs over food vendors. The lunch lady with the hairnet has given way to Ronald McDonald and the Taco Bell chihuahua. Thus, the school bus driver takes our kids to fast food hell.

There is another factor to consider; who is poor in this country. This is the only country in the world where the poorest citizens are often the fattest. In Washington, DC, where the poorest citizens are Black, there is a distinct lack of food options; DC has 6(!) supermarkets, 3 of which are located in Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and Tenally. However, DC has the highest density of McDonald's restaurants in the nation. There are chinese food and fried chicken "carry-outs" on every other corner. It should come as no surprise that the rate of Type 2 diabetes has mutliplied by a factor of 20 over the past 20 years in the district. These statistics mirror other inner city populations as well.
12.22.2005 12:46pm