FTC praises junk-food pledges

11 companies voluntarily will reduce pitches to kids

Voluntary steps taken by food and entertainment companies to reduce the number of junk-food pitches to children have won the applause of the chairman of the FTC.

At a Wednesday workshop on children's obesity and marketing held by the FTC and the Department of Health and Human Services, FTC chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said that private- sector initiatives can work faster — and with fewer legal problems — than government fiat.

"Industry action can bring change more quickly and effectively than government regulation of speech," she said.

"Weighing In: A Check-Up on Marketing, Self-Regulation and Childhood Obesity" comes as 11 big food and beverage companies pledged to take part in a Council of Better Business Bureaus initiative designed to reduce junk-food marketing to children.

Advertisers spend about $900 million each year on television tailored to children younger than 12, according to industry estimates. The Better Business Bureau said the 11 companies involved represent two-thirds of the total children's advertising market.

Majoras said that the problems caused by childhood obesity don't end when kids grow up and that the cost of the problem is borne by such companies as McDonald's, Campbell Soup, PepsiCo. and the other eight.

"Childhood obesity is a significant health cost that is borne increasingly by the biggest companies, if this doesn't ultimately spur big firms to act, then ultimately they should be spurred by competition in the marketplace from companies that have chosen to act," she said.

Media companies also have been examining their policies. The Walt Disney Co., Nickelodeon and BET have taken steps to make healthy foods more attractive.

French fries have been excised from McDonald's Happy Meals in Disney's theme parks. The company also plans to offer a line of packaged kids meals, one shaped like Mickey's head, with healthy food.

BET also is pushing to make its viewers aware of the problems associated with childhood obesity.

Majoras held out Disney's "Ratatouille" as an example of the type of thing Hollywood can do to change American attitudes. "Maybe it can do for vegetable stew what 'E.T.' did for Reese's Pieces," she quipped.

Attitudes across New Jersey Avenue from the FTC's conference center weren't as sanguine. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House telecom subcommittee, wasn't prepared to embrace the new recipe.

"The big unanswered question at this point is how stringent each company's nutritional guidelines are," he said. "I plan to reserve judgment until these guidelines can be carefully reviewed."

Markey also expressed concern that the media companies weren't taking on a big enough role.

"Most importantly, I would like the media industries to come forward with their own set of voluntary commitments," he said. "Children's television is supposed to be an oasis for kids in the vast wasteland of television. Food marketers setting standards is half the battle, but unless the media companies also set standards, junk-food ads will keep popping up to pollute the oasis."