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Muris Pans Food-Ad Ban

Outgoing Federal Trade Commission chairman Tim Muris said banning food ads targeted toward children would be ineffective, not to mention illegal.

Muris, a panelist at an obesity summit in Williamsburg Thursday, added that "kids get most of their info from adult programs," anyway. Ironically, he said, government regulations can actually prevent positive health messages. FDA rules, for example, prevent Apple growers from claiming their product "is better for you than, say, potato chips.... "This (kind of thing) actually drives good health information out of advertising."

Nestle vs. Fudge

Elsewhere at the summit, co-sponsored by big media outlets Time Inc. and ABC, it was Nestle vs. Fudge.

The Nestle was Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public health professor at New York University, the Fudge was Ann M. Fudge, chairman Young & Rubicam Brands.

The topic of the panel was marketing to kids and the moderator was a "gracious yet tough" ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, who grilled media, advertisers, Muris, and media critics while obviously itching to cover the resignation of CIA chief George Tenet (he exited like a guided missile after the panel).

Summit participants were in general agreement that eating and exercise habits are formed in childhood, that kids are suffering the greatest increase in obesity and that the trend could have disastrous health results. But not surprisingly, they were pointing fingers in different directions.

"Food companies are always trying to shift discussion to physical activity rather than food," said Nestle, adding that those companies "aren't trying to make kids fat, they're trying to sell products... Most insidious of all," she said, "is trying to convince kids they need their own special foods--Lunchables instead of plain food. That's why the government has to be involved."

Fudge disagreed, citing the case of Sweden "where they have banned all TV ads to children, and obesity continues to rise.... You can't just lay the problem at the foot of advertising to kids. All of us have some responsibility." She added "There are a multitude of issues that add up to obesity. Diet, schools, educating children and messages we send."

When asked pointedly by Jennings whether there should be a voluntary moratorium on using popular (licensed) characters to market foods to children, Fudge said no, "partly because I grew up with Mickey Mouse products and cookies. Advertisers can put context around the message. What value is it to [advertisers] to create young consumers who are unhealthy? Ultimately the consumer decides what they're picking up off the shelf."

Michael Mudd, EVP, corporate affairs, at Kraft, said his company has tightened standards for kids TV ads, saying it sets age limits for ads and does not advertise to young children. The assertion drew fire from Nestle, among others, who disputed "whether children under 12 were cognitively able to discern the (biased)
purpose of advertising, namely to sell."

Mudd said the regulatory playing field should be leveled in one of three ways, either by government regulation, industry self-regulation or by media companies refusing to accept certain ads.

Nickelodeon's Marva Smalls said her company "has been very proactive on the issue. We have been meeting with all the major food companies and ad partners" about creating a campaign to encourage healthy behaviors in kids. Smalls added "There's an opportunity to use (NICK licensed) characters" to promote so-called better-for-you products."

NYU's Nestle as well as members of the audience observed that the sheer amount of time kids spend in front of TV and other "screen" creates a giant problem of sedentary behavior. Kids now spend enough time in front of TV, game and computer screens to "equal a full time job," said one pediatrician. Nestle also cited a study showing that kids consume 20% of their daily calories in front of the TV.