Op-Ed, 554 words

Big Food’s Blame Game

To distract us from the facts, the fast food industry and its defenders blame parents for the rising child obesity rate.

Leslie Samuelrich

Corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year marketing a dangerous product to America’s children.

No one disputes the danger of the product. No one disputes that the marketing successfully convinces millions of kids to use the product.

Yet these same corporations deny that they’re endangering our children. Instead, they’re blaming parents. It’s mom’s fault. Or dad’s.

How could this be? If the product were a gun, or drugs, or even a poorly designed toy that could injure a child, the corporation responsible for making it and then marketing it to the most vulnerable among us would be on the hook.

Yet since the product I’m talking about is unhealthy food, corporations expect us to apply a different standard. They want us to blame the victim, or at least the people who love the victim the most.

In the past 30 years, U.S. obesity rates have tripled among children between 12 and 19 years old. A third of children today are now officially overweight or obese. Consequently, these children are more likely to suffer from diseases once limited to grownups, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type II diabetes.

Sick children often grow up to be sick adults–and we all pay. Obesity is costing our country $147 billion per year, according to government-sponsored research. As a group of retired military leaders pointed out earlier this year, the crisis even undermines our national security: Being overweight is the top reason military recruits are rejected.

In this context, calls for limiting fast food marketing to children are modest. Such initiatives don’t call for banning fast food; they’re simply an effort to level the playing field. Each year, McDonald’s and its competitors move more than a billion unhealthy meals to kids under the age of 12, primarily on the wings of toy giveaways in its Happy Meals.

As it stands now, the fight is hardly fair. Messages from nonprofits and government agencies to promote healthy eating habits for kids are overwhelmed by the flood of advertising for Chicken McNuggets, Coke, Cocoa Puffs, and other things they shouldn’t eat or drink.

Consider this: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation spends $100 million a year to reverse child obesity trends–and that’s the single largest effort of its type in history. In contrast, the Federal Trade Commission estimates major food and beverage corporations spend at least $1.6 billion in the United States every year–16 times more–to convince kids to eat unhealthy food. They augment traditional advertising with crafty public relations stunts, such as Ronald McDonald appearances at schools and children’s hospitals.

Young children are exceptionally receptive to what they’re hearing and seeing because they lack the maturity to separate reality from marketing. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics says that “advertising directed toward children is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age.”

But corporations resist reform. They know that children under 13 years old command $40 to $50 billion in direct purchasing power, and influence another $670 billion in family purchases each year.

To distract us from these facts, the fast food industry and its defenders blame parents. But the truth is simpler, revealed by the faith corporations place in their multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. Targeting children, they know, pays.

So the next time you hear moms and dads singled out for the epidemic of diet-related disease facing our country’s children, follow the money.

Leslie Samuelrich is the chief of staff of Corporate Accountability International. www.stopcorporateabuse.org