Q&A: Harkin sets the table for kids food marketers

Before U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat-Iowa) addressed delegates at the KidScreen Summit (February 8-10), we asked for his views on childhood obesity, marketing to kids and how he plans to engage the kids entertainment industry.
February 1, 2006

Before U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat-Iowa) addressed delegates at the KidScreen Summit (February 8-10), we asked for his views on childhood obesity, marketing to kids and how he plans to engage the kids entertainment industry.

KS: What prompted you to get involved in the debate over the childhood obesity issue in the U.S.?

TH: Our healthcare system would be more appropriately called a ‘sick care system’ – if you get sick, you get care. I have long believed that more should be done to promote good health and prevent chronic disease. Nearly 75% of the US$2 trillion spent on healthcare each year goes to treat preventable chronic diseases. Encouraging healthier lifestyles would not only lower this price tag, it would give millions of Americans a better quality of life. Today the childhood obesity epidemic is emerging as a real public health crisis, and we all must take action now to prevent dire consequences in the future.

KS: Getting kids to eat their veggies has always been a struggle.How do you think kids food marketers’ support of healthier lifestyles will make a difference with this generation?

TH: According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the food industry spends upwards of US$10 billion marketing to children each year. This marketing has become extremely sophisticated, incredibly pervasive and overwhelmingly biased toward encouraging unhealthy choices.

Frankly, this onslaught of junk food marketing undermines parents’ choices for their own children. Mom says no; Shrek says yes. Dad says carrots; Scooby Doo says candy. How are parents supposed to compete?

Marketing works. If the industry were to make a strong commitment to use marketing to encourage healthy choices, it would have a tremendous impact on the health of this generation.

KS: Despite your proposed legislation that would see food marketing regulations for kids enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, you still seem to prefer the industry develop a set of ‘meaningful’ guidelines for self-regulation. Ideally, what would you like to see in place?

TH: I prefer stronger industry self-regulation to government regulation, but industry efforts to date have fallen far short of what counts as meaningful self-regulation.

First and foremost, the industry must develop uniform standards for marketing to children that must be adopted industry-wide. These standards must be developed in conjunction with child health experts, not just industry stakeholders. They must apply to the entire universe of marketing techniques (not just TV ads), and take into account the nutritional content of the foods being marketed.

Finally, there must be a clear plan for implementing, monitoring, and ensuring compliance. There are many problems with CARU (the Children’s Advertising Review Unit), but one of the most significant issues is that it has no teeth, no mechanisms to enforce the rules. Any meaningful self-regulation must include a much more transparent, robust and effective structure to implement and enforce the standards established.

KS: Can you point to any food marketers and kids entertainment companies that are currently taking a step in the right direction?

TH: Some companies have put limits on their food marketing to kids – Kraft and Pepsi come to mind. I have publicly commended them and encouraged them to go even further. Some children’s characters are also being used to promote fruits and vegetables, and I applaud those efforts as well. Unfortunately, these are exceptions to the norm. As the IOM reported, the vast majority of marketing directed at children encourages unhealthy choices, and those choices have a decidedly negative impact on children’s health.

KS: In light of the pending lawsuit against Kellogg and Nickelodeon and the IOM report, it seems like food marketers and entertainment companies are bearing the brunt of the blame for this crisis right now. Parents, however, must have some role to play. Where does parental control figure into this situation for you?

TH: Of course they should play a role. We all must do our part, and parents should set limits for their own children. But just as parents have a responsibility to set reasonable limits for their children, the industry has a responsibility to set reasonable limits for itself. Kids are bombarded with ‘cool’ characters endorsing products their parents don’t approve of. Kids beg, whine, nag, and cajole their parents until they get what they want. This marketing to vulnerable children undermines parents’ choices and parental responsibility.

KS: One of the reasons you’ve chosen to deliver the keynote address at this month’s KidScreen Summit is to engage in a collaborative dialogue with leaders in the kids entertainment industry. What plans do you have to make it happen?

TH: I hope it is apparent that I want to engage in a frank and honest dialogue. That is why I am participating in the Summit, and why I have tried to engage the food, entertainment and advertising industries on several occasions over the past few years. I hope that by raising my concerns about child health with industry professionals, they will, in turn, make their viewpoints known to me. I understand that they are responsible to their shareholders to maintain a healthy bottom line.

We will attend the KidScreen Summit as representatives of government and industry. But we are also parents, grandparents, citizens and members of a common society. I know that the entertainment industry cares about kids’ health, too. I am hopeful that there is a sincere will and determination to put the interests of children first, and to hammer out a meaningful, effective approach to meet our common goal.

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