The Banning of Fast Food Ads: Reducing Child Obesity, Stifling Capitalism?

Obesity is an epidemic, and its rapid rise has closely coincided with the growth of the so-called “fast-food culture.” It’s been hotly debated for many years whether fast food advertisements, which are primarily aimed at children in the United States, are in large part responsible for rising obesity levels. A new study, the most comprehensive of its kind, has concluded that indeed this form of advertising plays an enormous role in obesity numbers, especially in children.

It’s a common belief in many industries that instilling a comfort and recognition of a certain product at a very young age will create a lifelong customer. This is the fundamental reason for the abundance of advertisements aimed at children, who themselves have no purchasing power, and the creation of the famous Joe Camels and Ronald McDonalds of the world. Given that certain products, such as the majority of fast foods, have potentially profound effects of the health of the consumer, getting kids hooked on the food might be partially responsible for rising obesity, and related conditions (heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, to name a few).

The study in question, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), looked at the potential impact of a ban on fast food advertising during children’s programming. For children 3-11 years of age, researchers concluded that obesity levels would drop by 18%, while in 12-18 year old kids, obesity would drop by 14%. It’s also noted that males appear to be more easily influenced by fast food advertising, so the reduction in obesity due to the ban is more pronounced in male children. The study looked at comprehensive data of more than 13,000 American children, which accounted for their states of health, lifestyle, and “viewing habits.”

On the surface, this proposed ban, besides angering the fast-food conglomerates, seems like a near necessity in protecting the nation’s children. Unfortunately, there are many deep issues that need to be accounted for when considering such measures. The most evident is that the federal government would be essentially interfering with the “free-market” in order to protect children. Many, even outside of the obvious ones with direct incentives, value the guiding capitalistic principles that America’s economy is supposed to be built on, above all else. Too much government involvement is a scary possibility for these people.

Thankfully, there is already a precedent for similar policies, as similar restrictions have been implemented in other countries. The Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweeden and Finland, pioneered the bans on advertising during children’s programming, which coincided with declining child-obesity rates in those countries. While these countries don’t have the same aversion to big government that many Americans do, at least they provide evidence that the ban really can work.

While it wasn’t of primary focus in the study, another interesting proposal and conclusion was drawn regarding the elimination of tax-deductible food advertisements. Business expenses are non-taxable, and food advertisements are now considered a business expense. Making the money used for advertisements taxable, the researchers suggest, would decrease fast food advertising aimed at children by 40%, and 33% for that aimed at adolescents. Specifically, food advertising would cost 54% more if it was no longer tax-deductible. It’s suggested that this would then translate to a 5-7% decrease in obesity levels in children.

Childhood obesity has become a major problem in the United States, with 10-15% of young children and adolescents being at least significantly overweight. This study also notes that an overweight child has more than an 80% chance of becoming an obese adult, and obese adults have a much higher incidence of numerous life-threatening conditions. In fact, in the United States alone, obesity is thought to be responsible (directly and indirectly) for more than 300,000 deaths per year. Not all of this can be blamed on advertising fatty foods to kids, but following this study, it’s hard to deny that it plays a role. Study author Dr. Shin-Yi Chou eyes an impact: “Hopefully, this line of research can lead to a serious discussion about the type of policies that can curb America’s obesity epidemic.”

Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Yencho, Tom. Chou, Shin-Yi. Journal of Law and Economics news release. November 2008.