Selling obesity: can ad restrictions help in the battle of the bulge?

Michael Bloomberg got the headlines for his assault on the Big Gulp, but I’m more intrigued by Disney’s anti-obesity push.

Last week, Disney said it will dump TV, radio and web ads for junk food, sweet cereals and candy, a ban that goes into effect in 2015.

It calls to mind 1971, when Congress banned tobacco TV advertising. That was a government edict, of course, and this time, one private company is making the move unilaterally. But the intent is the same: to insulate young, impressionable viewers from slick ads pitching unhealthy products.

The parallel between our nation’s campaign against smoking and its looming battle against obesity has been on my mind since Monday, when I listened to former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler speak in Boise.

Kessler served up a belt-busting helping of grim stats about the obesity epidemic — including the fact that the annual excess medical costs stemming from obesity, $190 billion, have eclipsed tobacco-related costs. But Kessler, an appointee who served for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, refused to feed into the despair. America can win this battle, he said, but not easily.

“This is as hard as anything we’ve ever done in health care,” Kessler told an audience of community leaders at a luncheon sponsored by Saint Alphonsus Health System.

The difficulty of the task became apparent when Kessler brought up Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large soft drink servings. By a show of hands, almost everyone in the audience agreed that the New York mayor had correctly identified a contributor to obesity: outsized portion sizes. But only a quarter of the audience supported the Bloomberg ban. (Personally, I’m with the majority on this. I too have a problem with outlawing an unhealthy dieting decision, when it doesn’t directly affect anybody else.)

So there’s the rub. Even when we can identify the problems, it will be difficult to agree on the solutions.

No one solution will reverse this trend, says Kessler. If America is going to address the obesity problem at its origin — childhood obesity — parents, schools and the health industry all must play a role.

What about advertising? It’s part of the problem, says Kessler. Advertising says little about the food itself — its nutritional value, or lack thereof — and instead sells the feeling, the experience. “We’ve made food into entertainment.”

Which, I believe, is exactly what our society did with tobacco, not too many decades ago. We sold tobacco as cool, and have spent decades recalibrating our thinking. Yes, government has banned smoking in most public areas, an attempt to combat the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. At the same time, we’ve tried to change the way young people think about tobacco, before they take up a smoking habit.

Advertising bans are a slippery First Amendment slope, especially when the restrictions come from government. And if ads for sugar-coated cereals are off-limits on kids’ channels, is it OK for sports networks to take ad dollars from fast-food chains touting greasy, oversized “value” menus?

Let’s just take first things first. Kids, logically, are more likely to be persuaded by glitzy advertising. It also stands to reason that the obesity problem has to be addressed with our youth. We may never be able to quantify whether Disney’s move affects obesity rates — but we may be able to tell whether the decision causes advertisers, and other networks, to rethink their behaviors.

So let’s stay tuned.

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