ANALYSIS: Advertisers Put Your Children’s Health At Risk

The cigarette companies figured it out.   After having addicted adults to tobacco products, Big Tobacco diversified into sugary foods and commenced a systematic effort to addict children to sugar.  Only now are we discovering how food and tobacco companies have been deploying sophisticated advertising techniques to addict the nation’s children to sugar.

Make no mistake about it:  sugar is addictive.  More so than even cocaine.   A 2013 study by Connecticut College, demonstrated how Oreo cookies made more pleasure center neurons fire in the brain than did the cocaine. Read the study.   The purpose of the study was to examine the impact that high-fat/high-sugar foods have on the brain.  The scientists found that eating cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s “pleasure center” than exposure to drugs of abuse. Essentially,  high-fat/ high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do, thus explaining may why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.

Our Children Are Getting Unhealthy

The New York Times recently reported that researchers analyzing cigarette company documents stored at the University of California, San Francisco included internal correspondence showing how tobacco executives, barred from targeting children for cigarette sales, focused their marketing prowess on young people to sell sugary beverages in ways that had not been done before.  The archive,  created in a settlement between Big Tobacco and state attorneys general  led researchers to the smoking guns that linked tobacco and sugar marketing tactis.  They published their findings in the medical publication BMJ.

While revealing, this was not unexpected.  Advertising monitors had long suspected that food companies were using child-tested flavors, cartoon characters, branded toys and millions of dollars in advertising in order to promote loyalty to sugar-laden products.  What was surprising was the effectiveness of these tactics.   They are directly related to a childhood obesity epidemic that will have long-term impacts upon those children and upon the country’s health care system.

Already, the rates of obesity in America’s children and youth have almost tripled in the last quarter century. Approximately 20% of our youth are now overweight with obesity rates in preschool age children increasing at alarming speed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 (5.0% to 12.4%) and ages 6 to 11 (6.5% to 17.0%). In teens ages 12 to 19, prevalence rates have tripled (5.0% to 17.6%).

According to a 2010 study by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the number of Americans considered obese could hit 42% or more by 2050. The figure, which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, has already tripled since the 1980s. The silver lining, however, is that once the number hits the 42% mark it is anticipated to level out after that.

The CDC also warns that,  1 in 3 people in the United States will have Type 2 diabetes by 2050 unless there is a major shift in lifestyle trends. Currently, an estimated 30.3 million Americans have the disease but that cases will more than triple in the next 30 years. On top of those present-day figures, another 84.1 million people currently have prediabetes which usually leads to a Type 2 diagnosis within five years if not treated.  While diabetes may become more treatable, it will still divert limited medical resources.

How Advertising Promotes Addiction

Today’s children, ages 8 to 18, consume multiple types of media (often simultaneously) and spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computer, television, and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping.  The American Psychological Association warns that most children under age 6 cannot distinguish between programming and advertising and children under age 8 do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

Advertising directed at children is exploitative because children have a remarkable ability to recall content from the ads to which they have been exposed. Product preference can occur with as little as a single commercial exposure and to strengthen with repeated exposures.  The food industries advertising that targets children and youth is directly linked to the increase of childhood obesity. Advertising also objectifies girls and women, contributing to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.  This inevitably leads to unhealthy weight control behaviors(e.g., fasting, skipping meals, eating very little food, vomiting and using diet pills, laxatives or diuretics) that are also linked with obesity.

The APA has documented how children’s exposure to TV ads for unhealthy food products (i.e., high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods and sweetened drinks) are a significant risk factor for obesity.  For example, in very young children, researchers find that for every one-hour increase in TV viewing per day, there are higher intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, red and processed meat, and overall calories.  Other research shows how children who watch more than three hours of television a day are 50 per cent more likely to be obese than children who watch fewer than two hours.  Note: food ads on television make up 50 percent of all the ad time on children’s shows. (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2007)

Advertising isn’t limited to TV or computers.  It is also found in America’s schools:

* Direct advertising in school classrooms (via advertiser-sponsored video or audio programming)

* Indirect advertising (via corporate-sponsored educational materials)

* Product sales contracts (with soda and snack food companies)

* School-based corporate-sponsored marketing research.

Ads are now appearing on school buses, in gymnasiums, on book covers and even in bathroom stalls.  Note:Channel One, which is available in 12,000 schools, provides programming consisting of 10 minutes of current-events and 2 minutes of commercials. Advertisers pay $200,000 for advertising time and the opportunity to target 40% of the nation’s teenagers for 30 seconds.

What Can Parents Do?

First, be aware.  Advertising can and will be harmful to your children’s health.  This means you have to limit TV, video, gaming and Web surfing in order to help keep your children healthy.   You also need to understand how profoundly addicting refined sugar products can be.  Imagine giving your children cocaine……and now consider that by allowing them to eat sugary foods is even more addicting.

Finally, it may help to eliminate refined sugar products from your own diet, as well as keeping a disciplined exercise regimen.  Children emulate their parents so demonstrating and reinforcing these healthy habits will protect your children from a lifetime of surreptitious addiction.

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