Question of the Week

January 30, 2006


Advertising works. Advertising would not be the multi-billion dollar business that it is if it didn't work. People young and old are persuaded by advertisers who are trying to convince consumers and influence behavior. That said, how is advertising a health issue?

"Advertising can have positive effects on children's behaviour. For example, some alcohol manufacturers spend 10% of their budget on advertisements warning about the dangers of drinking and driving. In addition, although some health care professionals disagree about the health benefits of appropriate milk use, milk consumption has increased as a result of print and broadcast advertisements. The developmental stage of a child plays a role in the effect of commercials. Young children do not understand the concept of a sales pitch. They tend to believe what they are told and may even assume that they are deprived if they do not have advertised products. Most
preschool children do not understand the difference between a program designed to entertain and a commercial designed to sell. A number of studies have documented that children under the age of eight years are developmentally unable to understand the difference between advertising and regular programming."

While watching too much television has been linked to obesity because it leads to inactive children (and adults) who are not getting enough exercise, it appears that there are further ramifications, as well. The amount of television also influences the number of advertisements viewed; the advertisements impact the health of the viewers by impacting the choices that they make regarding their health.

"Children are an ideal target, simply because they are avid television viewers. A survey of seven to 12-year-olds in France and Switzerland by the newspaper Journal de Genève shows that they spend an average of two and a half hours in front of their sets every day. Little Germans watch less, while American children consume between four and five hours of television every day! Food, toy, clothing and record companies already invest millions of euros to win them over. In the United States, the Consumers‚ Union says each child sees 30,000 commercials a year. Their behaviour shows it: they choose what they consume, insist on their favourite brands and influence their family‚s choices."

In the 1990s, the medical community was trying to bring to the attention of the public this hidden health concern.

"Television and other media represent one of the most important and underrecognized influences on children and adolescents' health and behavior in the 1990s. Their impact should be eliciting serious concern, not just from parents and educators but from physicians, public health advocates, and politicians as well. Although objections to various programming and advertising practices can exist on common sense, philosophical, aesthetic, humanistic, or public health grounds without strict scientific data, increasing numbers of studies document that a serious problem exists."

More recently, lawyers are making the combination of advertising and health a legal issue. A coalition of lawyers who have actively and successfully sued tobacco companies says it is close to filing a class-action lawsuit against soft-drink makers for selling sugared sodas in schools. ... Also involved in the prospective lawsuit is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that has aggressively pressed for more explicit food labels and less fat and sodium in all kinds of food. Earlier this year, the group called for federally mandated health warnings similar to those on cigarettes. 'The idea is to get soda machines out of schools because they are clearly making a substantial contribution to the obesity epidemic,' Daynard said yesterday in an interview. 'This is an unfair practice
under state consumer-protection laws,' he said. The suit's legal basis will be tied to the concept of 'attractive nuisance: If somebody has something on his land like a swimming pool that he knows is attractive to kids and dangerous, then he has some obligation to keep the kids away from it,' Daynard said. 'You want to keep kids away from dangerous objects, and a soda machine is demonstrated to be a dangerous object for kids.'

The analogy of soda machines and swimming pools leads to further questions (for example: What is the responsibility that of the owner of the pool to put up a fence, and what is the responsibility of the parents, teachers, and community to teach the child proper water safety?)... But this is more than just a health issue that is becoming a legal issue; it is also a health issue that is becoming a political issue:

"[T]he United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has prepared a report, at the request of Congress, which found that the junk food kids consume at school is leading to obesity and other health problems. The department sets the nutritional standards for breakfasts and lunches served in school cafeterias but has no control over food sold through vending machines. ... The USDA report recommends that Congress 'strengthen the statutory language to ensure that all foods sold or served anywhere in the school during the day meet nutritional standards.' Commercial Alert and other organizations in the United States are urging members of Congress to implement the USDA recommendation."

Advertising as a health issue has become more than just a health issue. It is now a legal issue, a political issue, and a cause for international concern.

"The first global plan to combat the growing threat of obesity was finally agreed yesterday, despite intensive pressure from the sugar lobby to weaken the proposals. The plan from the World Health Organisation sets out guidelines promoting a more active lifestyle, controlling the marketing of food to children as well as giving advice on healthy eating. The plan, the first attempt to help the world fight the spiralling rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer linked to obesity, was nearly derailed earlier this year by the sugar barons who feared it would threaten their trade. But after long negotiations on Friday, when it was agreed that the plan would state that trade interests should not be harmed by healthy diet promotion, the 192-member World Health Assembly backed the plan yesterday. This week British MPs will produce their own plan for combating child obesity, which will put the government under intense pressure to bring in strict curbs on the advertising of junk food to children under five."

Questions of the Week:
In what ways do advertisers play a role in the decisions you and your peers make that affect your health? If you had the final say: What would you say to the lawyers trying to make a case against the soda industry? What would you say to those in congress who might try to make decisions about what is and is not allowed in schools with regards to advertising? What would you say to pediatricians who are
concerned about the effects of advertising on their patients? What would you say to children about the issue of advertising and their health?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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