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Brownback Trims the Fat

We applaud Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and the FCC for creating a new joint task force on the media and childhood obesity.

Childhood obesity affects 17% of kids, many of whom grow up with health burdens that carry over much later in life—to the tune of over $100 billion in health-care costs and six-figure death tolls annually.

Last week at a press conference, Brownback cited the “direct and profound” impact of targeted marketing of candy, cereal, soda and fast-food. That's a given. Now, what do we do about it?

The government does not get to intervene in speech unless there is a compelling government interest. Well, a nation of children developing diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems, and potentially living shorter, sicker lives than the generation before, sounds pretty compelling from here.

Unfortunately, it's hard for the government to compel people not to eat junk food, or for parents to monitor their kids' diet and exercise habits. So the media are a handy target. But singling out one villain is not fair. That's why Brownback's collegial approach is attractive.

Some child-advocacy groups want an outright ban on marketing junk food to children, like the ban on cigarettes. But cigarettes are poison straight out of the pack. Food is only dangerous when abused. More regulations are the wrong fix to the problem.

Studies point out that several factors are contributing to childhood obesity, including less time spent in the gym. Parents, listen up: Take the Twinkie out of junior's mouth and turn off the TV. Not forever, just long enough to take your kid for a bike ride.

Marketing is a powerful force, and to deny its role in pushing high-calorie, low-nutrition foods would be ridiculous. At the press conference, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin noted that the average child watches up to four hours of TV per day and views about 40,000 TV ads a year.

But instead of pointing fingers, Brownback and Martin took pains to emphasize their goal of working with the industry to attack the problem, rather than castigating it from afar. This is a Republican-heavy task force at launch, but Brownback promises it will welcome food-marketing from the left, too. We'll watch.

The task force may just be an attempt by government types to hitch political fortunes to a no-lose issue—protecting kids. And industry types may use it to avoid regulation by appearing to address the problem. But they could face a backlash of food-marketing regulation, particularly if the political makeup of Congress changes.

There's also the chance the task force can do good and manage to look good in the process. The proof, we think, will be in the responsibly marketed, low-fat pudding.