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Institute of Medicine Wants Food Ad Standards Applied to Teens

he Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the National Academies has recommended that the government -- state, local and national -- consider mandating common standards for marketing food and beverages to children and teens if industry has not done so within the next two years. Currently voluntary efforts are aimed at kids under 12.

"The food, beverage, restaurant and media industries should take broad, common, and urgent voluntary action to make substantial improvements in their marketing aimed directly at children and adolescents aged 2-17," said the institute in an advisory on combating obesity.

It argues that "all foods" marketed to that age group should encourage avoiding calories from foods high in sugar, fat and sodium, and instead eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

"The standards set for foods and beverages marketed to children and adolescents should be widely publicized and easily available to parents and other consumers. They should cover foods and beverages marketed to children and adolescents aged 2-17 and should apply to a broad range of marketing and advertising practices, including digital marketing and the use of licensed characters and toy premiums," said the institute.

And if a "substantial majority" of media companies and food marketers have not complied within two years? "[P]olicy makers at the local, state, and federal levels should consider setting mandatory nutritional standards for marketing to this age group to ensure that such standards are implemented," IOM says.

The food and beverage companies already support the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which has 16 member companies signing on to voluntary food marketing standards, including McDonald's, Burger King, Campbell Soup, Coke, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg and other major food companies. Those guidelines are aimed at kids under 12.

The institute wants all fast food restaurants to implement voluntary standards, and wants the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to adopt common standards with the National Restaurant Association Initiative, and actively recruit more member companies to swell its ranks.

It also wants media companies to adopt their own nutrition standards for all foods they market to teens, and for the Federal Trade Commission to track compliance with marketing standards across food and beverage companies.

Elaine Kolish, CFBAI VP and director and former head of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection enforcement division, attended the Centers for Disease Control conference on obesity Tuesday at which the advisory was presented. She points out that the food marketing portion was one of 20 different recommendations that included enlisting the media in "a major national social marketing program on physical activity and nutrition," as well as recommendations on increasing physical activity and including in schools.

As to the recommendation that the voluntary standards CFBAI members have adopted be extended to teens, Kolish says CFBIA still does not think that is the way to go. "Teens should not be treated like toddlers," she says, adding that the Federal Trade Commission last fall also concluded that it was not recommending expanding food marketing ad guidelines to kids 12-17.

Kolish says that marketers are already taking voluntary steps, and will boost that effort when CFBAI adopt new nutrition guidelines by the end of 2013. She adds that some companies, McDonald's and Campbells, for instance, are adopting them before then.

Kolish also says she is continually encouraging other companies to take the CFBAI voluntary guidelines pledge.