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Maine Eyes Junk-Food-Ad Ban

The Maine legislature has been tentatively advised to pass a law banning or taxing TV ads for junk food, particularly those targeted toward children.

Not surprisingly, that has lit a fire under the Association of National Advertisers, which is preparing testimony to oppose those recommendations of a blue ribbon commission charged with investigating ways to combat obesity.

A similar bill targeting ads that promoted unhealthy lifestyles to children (which included food and video games) was introduced in New York last year but went nowhere.

According to the Maine Broadcasters Association, the blue ribbon commission gave its preliminary OK to four recommendations, all dealing with either TV advertising or in-school marketing. The commission, which includes some state legislators, was formed last year to study several proposed laws, including snack and soda taxes and add restrictions, which were all put on hold pending the commission's recommendations.

The commission suggests 1) exploring whether "advertising of foods 'other than healthy foods or beverages' aimed at children 12 and under...should be restricted on Maine television stations"; 2) "sending a letter to members of Maine's congressional delegation calling for limits on national television advertising aimed at children for foods 'other than healthy foods and beverages'; (3) "levy[ing] a tax on advertising for foods 'other than healthy foods and beverages' to fund an anti-obesity media campaign; and (4) prohibiting junk food ads on school property.

The commission will meet again, hold a public hearing and then present its final recommendations, probably in late September.

ANA and broadcasters are concerned that if Maine passes such laws, particularly taxes that could help fill the coffers of financially-strapped states, others could follow suit. they have a raft of problems with the proposals. For one, says ANA's Keith Scarborough, "the government picking and choosing specific kinds of ads to ban raises serious First Amendment issues." He also says it is counterproductive to try to attack the obesity problem by banning information. Such a ban would also affect information about product improvements, he says.

Scarborough points out that the Surgeon General's recent report identifying obesity as a major health risk did not recommend banning advertising.

Another issue is the feasibility of producing a legally sustainable definition of 'unhealthy' foods and beverages.

Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin introduced a bill in this session of Congress that would give the FTC the ability to ban all advertising to children. It tried to do just that in the 1970's, but Congress stepped in to reign in its power to ban entire categories of advertising.