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One in 5 Kids Is Obese, Yet Congress Is More Concerned With Protecting Profits Than Kids' Health

Food and media corporations use campaign donations, attacks on science and the threat of smear campaigns to kill voluntary food marketing guidelines.
 
 
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Congress, particularly Republicans, loves to invoke safeguarding future generations. But no issue so brazenly shows both major parties’ disregard for America’s young and a reflexive pandering to corporate profits as recently derailed efforts to reverse childhood obesity—by, of all things, suggesting that food makers voluntarily change the way they market foods, snacks and drinks to impressionable kids. 
 
Childhood obesity affects one in five Americans under 18—15 million or more kids, with the highest rates in communities of color, according to public health scientists. Advocates, who add in overweight youths, call it an “unprecedented national health crisis” that affects one in three kids. Extended into adulthood, obesity accounts for one-fifth of the nation’s healthcare expenses. Indeed, as two lawmakers who pushed for the marketing changes last year wrote, “Children today are likely to be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.”
 
But even the most innocuous efforts to confront real problems—getting industry to police itself with voluntary guidelines—get shot down by lobbyists and politicians. Last week, a report by the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group pried open the eyebrow-raising paper trail that in mid-December ended a multi-year, science-based effort for the federal government to issue marketing guidelines for cereals, snacks, fast food, sodas and drinks pushed on kids.
 
The paper trail showed the lengths to which corporate America will go to protect profits using every available means—campaign donations, attacking science, asserting corporate constitutional rights, and threatening federal agencies with smear campaigns—and how nearly 200 lawmakers from both parties piled onto their tirade, ignoring a nationwide health epidemic affecting millions of children and teenagers, to say nothing of adults. The evidence—especially letters attacking the initiative signed by scores of lawmakers from both parties—shows how ingrained protecting profits, not standing up for the public interest, is in Congress and Washington’s corporate lobbying culture.      
 
The ‘Radical’ Solution: Prevention
 
Obesity’s causes are well known: poor eating choices and insufficient exercise. So too is the impact of advertising on young impressionable minds—whether it comes from TV shows, movies, radio, video games, sports sponsorships, packaging, labeling, shared branding and promotions, Internet ads, celebrities and even in-school endorsements.
 
Federal scientists and health policy experts have been studying the issue for years, determining what product categories are sold most often to different age groups, their nutritional pros and cons, the impact of advertising on consumption, the physical impacts of nutritionally vacant foods along with insufficient exercise, subsequent emotional and healthcare costs—all with an eye toward encouraging healthier lifestyles. More recently, First Lady Michelle Obama has made reversing childhood obesity her signature issue. 
 
In 2009, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas took a different approach to the obesity epidemic. They added language to an appropriations bill that called for the federal government’s food, health and consumer agencies to “study and develop recommendations” for food marketing standards that target youths 17 and younger. It was a clear, prevention-oriented strategy. 
 
The main job fell on the pro-consumer agency, the Federal Trade Commission, which in early 2011 drafted voluntary marketing guidelines. Federal scientists found most of the foods marketed to kids and teenagers were sugary and fat-laden. The FTC put together nutrition and marketing suggestions coupled with a let-industry-police-itself approach. 
 
The FTC’s voluntary effort was ravaged on Capitol Hill. The paper trail that traced its undoing over a six-month period is staggering, particularly how so many members of Congress unabashedly assisted corporate lobbyists. Democrats who view themselves as liberal on children’s issues, such as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, wrote to the FTC to question, water-down, impugn or attack the voluntary marketing guidelines.
 
The response and claims made by food makers and marketers, such as General Mills from Klobuchar’s state, were beyond shrill and irresponsible. The FTC literally was accused of stealing candy from babies—chocolate Easter bunnies and Santas. That was followed by attacks on the science, defenses of the nutritional value of junk food, claims that food makers’ constitutional commercial speech rights were being trampled, hyperbole about how the FTC’s suggested guidelines were job-killing regulations, and threats that "grassroots" campaigns would rise and attack the FTC’s credibility. 
 
Amid the mountain of letters and official comments was a telling tidbit of truth: that if the FTC’s guidelines were fully followed, TV stations could lose “20 percent” of revenues. The Alliance for American Advertising's executive director James Davidson said that amounted to $28.3 billion annually and 74,000 lost jobs. “Only 12 out of the top 100 foods and beverages in this country would make the final cut.”
 
Yes—that is how unhealthy the staples of America’s junk food addiction are. Almost everything thrown at children and teens is not worth eating. Or as the advocacy group Children Now more politely said in a press release, “Nearly three out of four foods advertised on television to children are for products in the poorest nutritional category.”
  
That 20 percent figure is even more intriguing. Harkin’s letter to the FTC written a day earlier said, “estimates indicate that obesity cost our country nearly $150 billion in 2008, and… the American Public Health Association has estimated that these costs will reach more than 20% of health care spending by 2018 if the obesity epidemic is not stemmed.” (A Cornell University study published a month ago found it already was 21 percent.)
 
Whose 20 percent won in Congress? The 20 percent of profits going into the pockets of big media (to say nothing of food marketers and manufacturers) or the 20 percent pulled out of everybody’s pocket that faces escalating healthcare costs, or kids or families facing serious weight issues? In 2011’s final appropriation bill, funding for the FTC’s voluntary food marketing effort was killed—right next to paragraphs slashing funds for the White House’s health reform and climate change staff.  
 
Nancy Watzman, the Sunlight Foundation researcher who tracked Congress’ response and has been following money and politics for years, said nobody could quite tell her how unusual—or usual—it was for a third of the Senate and 40 percent of the House to write letters to federal agencies while ignoring a crisis affecting millions of kids.
 
Those legislators received far more money—campaign contributions—from anti-FTC lobbies, she reported, but that pattern has been going on for years. However, writing a letter attacking voluntary guidelines takes a bit more effort than voting no. The pro-consumer FTC did not respond to Sunlight Foundation’s or to AlterNet’s requests for comment to put the fast food campaigners’ efforts into perspective.
 
“Everyone has fast food and broadcasters in their districts,” Watzman said. “I wanted to be able say if it was a bigger lobbying campaign. I couldn’t get the confirmation to say that. But gee, 40 percent of the House and one-third of the Senate took the trouble to do this—some of them more than once.”
 
Not a Do-Nothing, But a Do-Harm Congress
 
The unraveling of a nationwide voluntary health campaign aimed at America’s children is not just deeply disturbing—or as cynics would say, predictable. It raises questions about what expectations we should even have for federal government in an era where making money and protecting corporate power seem to be Congress’s top priority.
 
Last week in Washington, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a “Weight of the Nation 2012” conference. As the CDC Web site said, “The conference is an excellent opportunity to meet with top experts in the field and experience first-hand the innovative strategies and solutions that are reversing the trends leading to the obesity epidemic.” This week, HBO will air a four-part documentary series on the topic.
 
The conference was attended by people who supported the FTC’s efforts, but also felt the agency did not go far enough. Health providers, educators and advocates wanted to see food marketing standards like ratings at movies, geared to different ages, because health issues affecting children are not the same as teenagers and adults. It is likely that some congresspeople who derailed the FTC’s efforts also attended.
 
But the heart of the matter—that junk food makers are determined to keep producing and marketing products that are nutritionally bankrupt, especially for young people—casts a shadow on the CDC’s efforts. Its participants need not be reminded that the only health issue that consistently matters in Congress seems to be the health of corporate earnings. The lobbying trail traced by Sunlight’s Watzman made that abundantly clear. 
 
Sixteen Hershey State House members signed a letter noting that Pennsylvania is where “the vast majority of chocolate and sugar confectionary sold in the United States” comes from. They said the guidelines would harm sales of “seasonal wrapped products, such as chocolate Easter Bunnies and chocolate Santas.” General Mills, in its comments, said, “Literally all cereals marketed by General Mills would be barred from advertising—even cereals like Cheerios.” 
 
But that’s not all the food makers said. They attacked the government’s science. “The IWG [working group] has presented no evidence supporting the notion that its proposed Advertising Ban will have any beneficial impact on childhood obesity nor does any such evidence exist,” General Mills wrote, adding, that its cereals are a “key weapon in the fight against obesity.” 
 
General Mills stated, “Foods with added sugar are no more likely to lead to weight gain than other foods.” It said that the “proposed nutrition standards are impossibly strict and reflect a bias against prepared, non-raw foods.” It declared that even voluntary guidelines “unconstitutionally restrains commercial speech in violation of the First Amendment.” In other words, any government suggestion that might affect how companies will try to hook kids as consumers violates corporate free speech.
 
What was astounding was not just that a third of the Senate and nearly 40 percent of the House piled on the FTC to kill the food marketing guidelines, but that so few stood up for the opposing viewpoint—that federal help was justified and needed to address a national health crisis. Only three lawmakers wrote to support the voluntary guidelines—Harkin, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Rep. Rosa Delauro of Connecticut, Sunlight’s analysis found. Instead the rest of the lawmakers’ letters only treated the narrowest of economic interests and consequences as worthy of consideration.
 
“Under these proposed nutrition standards, most food and beverage products manufactured in the state of Pennsylvania could no longer be marketed to children and teens,” the Hershey State legislators wrote, saying it provided 21,000 jobs and sold $9.3 billion in candy annually. “On closer examination, the restrictions on advertising would affect the advertising on more than 1,700 television programs, many of which have far more adult viewers than children or teens under 18,” Alliance for American Advertising executive director James Davidson wrote. Is he suggesting that the FTC’s voluntary guidelines also could have had a positive impact on adult obesity? 
 
At first, the FTC forcefully tried to dispel its critics. The Bureau of Consumer Protection director wrote a “What’s on the table” blog replying to 12 “myths” thrown up by business lobbyists: that the FTC was going to sue companies that didn’t adopt the guidelines; that its voluntary guidelines were backdoor regulation; that the FTC wanted to ban foods that didn’t meet its nutritional standards; that its proposal violated the First Amendment; that the proposal means the end of chocolate Easter Bunnies and Santas; that Toucan Sam will be banished from Froot Loops boxes; that its nutritional principles were inconsistent with other federal food rules; that the guidelines would cover all forms of marketing to teens; that food and beverage companies would no longer be able to sponsor school sports; that the FTC was government doing a parents’ job; that the voluntary rules will do nothing to reverse the obesity epidemic; that the FTC’s mind is “made up” and public comments will not influence the final report.

 
Consumer and public health groups tried to marshal their forces, generating 28,000 out of 29,000 comments sent to the FTC in support of the guidelines. But “over last summer, in July alone, 101 Republican members of Congress and 47 Democrats signed onto at least seven letters criticizing the guidelines,” the Sunlight Foundation reported. Then, last fall, the FTC started to cave. David Vladeck, director of the Consumer Protection Bureau and the myth-busting blogger, said the marketing guidelines need not “encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17” in testimony before the House in mid-October. 
 
“The marketing activities we contemplate for inclusion within the scope of children’s media are those that are used most extensively to specifically target children ages 2 to 11: traditional media, including television, print, and radio; online, digital, and social marketing; advertising or product placement in movies and video games; and certain specific marketing techniques like cross-promotions, sweepstakes, and premiums,” Vladeck said. “In addition, the Commission staff contemplates covering marketing activities in schools for both children and adolescents.”
 
But even that was too much for the food makers and advertising industry. In the 400-plus page appropriation bill passed last December, Section 626 said, “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used by the Federal Trade Commission to complete the draft report entitled 'Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children: Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts.'"
 
In the era of U.S. Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United, which deregulated corporate campaign spending, and presidential election years, where we see the latest campaign finance loopholes emerge with a vengeance, it is easy to overlook that the lobbying process often is where the most "political" money is spent—and where legislators often are least accountable to the public that elected them. 
 
The Sunlight Foundation’s report on the paper trail that preceded the demise of a badly needed national public health initiative shows how Washington actually works. This time, it was not just the GOP who paid more attention to cash constituents. There was bipartisan consensus that protecting the pocketbooks of big business was far more important than protecting the health of tens of millions of Americans of all ages.
 
 
 
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).