Banning fast food advertisements from children’s television programs would reduce the number of overweight children in the U.S. by 18 percent and decrease the number of overweight teens by 14 percent, economists have estimated in a new study.
The researchers used several statistical models to link obesity rates to the amount of time spent viewing fast food advertising, finding that viewing more fast food commercials on television raises the risk of obesity in children. The study appears in this month’s issue of The Journal of Law and Economics.
“There is not a lot of evidence that overweight kids are more likely to watch TV than other kids,” said Michael Grossman, professor of economics at the City University of New York. “We’re arguing the causality is how many messages are aired — seeing more of these messages is leading people to put on weight.” The study’s co-authors are Shin-Yi Chou, an economist at Lehigh College, and Inas Rashad, an economist at Georgia State University.
But the researchers’ estimate relies on older data gathered in the late 1990s, according to Elaine Kolish, a spokesman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Since then, two of the largest fast food chains — Burger King and McDonald’s — and more than a dozen other packaged food companies have signed on to the council’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, she said, pledging to advertise only their healthier products to children under age 12.
As a result, both Burger King and McDonald’s now air ads for children’s meals including apple sticks and low-fat milk. “I can’t help think that two huge chains advertising apples and milk to kids is going to be affecting children’s preferences,” Ms. Kolish said.
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy, said reliable estimates of television’s impact on childhood obesity are hard to calculate because of the many assumptions statisticians must make. “That said, food marketing is a blight on the landscape of our children and has been shown time and again to have a negative impact,” he added.
Only three countries — Sweden, Norway and Finland — have banned commercial sponsorship of children’s programs, and study authors acknowledged that the chances of such a ban in the U.S. are slim.
But since ads are a tax-deductible business expense, the researchers also analyzed the potential impact of eliminating federal tax deductions for fast food ads aimed at children. Such a move would curb childhood obesity by 5 to 7 percent, the analysis found.