A study on the marketing of sugary drinks to children shows that the beverage industry can’t be trusted to regulate the marketing of its own products, obesity experts at Yale University said on Monday.
The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale found that from 2006 to 2008, the number of advertisements children and teens saw for regular soda doubled. That’s during a time when the American Beverage Association, the trade group for drink makers, said members had stopped advertising sugary drinks in children’s programming.
The Rudd Center, which crusades for government regulation of food advertising and a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, said the food industry spends more on marketing sweetened drinks to children than it does any other food category.
“From the data so far we’ve collected it doesn’t seem that industry promises are providing much in the way of public health benefit,” Kelly Brownell, the director of the center, told reporters in a conference call. “This could be seen as an argument for government being involved.”
Brownell identified a series of possible regulations that could help reduce how much advertising children see. They included labeling requirements to ensure makers clearly indicated whether their products contained caffeine or artificial sweeteners, keeping such products off of supermarket shelves at children’s eye level, and banning television advertising on programs where some threshold number of children tune in.
“First, the country has to understand that industry regulating itself is a dead end. Then, once you do that, then all sorts of things pop up as possibilities,” Brownell said.
The Rudd Center has published similar reports examining the marketing of fast food and sugary cereal to children, finding that companies advertise extensively to children. Monday’s report identified the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages as a key factor driving childhood obesity, citing studies that kids who consume an 8-ounce serving of sugary liquids such as soda, fruit punch, or energy drinks are 60 percent more likely to be obese than those who don’t. One such drink contains 27 to 30 grams of sugar, more than is recommended for most children and teens in an entire day.
The beverage industry has cut back on its television ads for sugary drinks. Under a voluntary agreement, members of the American Beverage Association have not advertised such products during programs with audiences “predominantly” under 12. Coca Cola, the company the Rudd study identified as the biggest advertiser to children, said that it, like its peers, had cut back its marketing of regular soda to kids.
“The people at our member companies—many of whom are parents themselves—are delivering on their commitment to advertise only water, juice and milk on programming for children under 12,” Susan Neely, the organization’s president, said in a statement.
But the Rudd Center researchers said beverage makers were simply gaming the system, by defining banned drinks and programs too narrowly and then advertising more in other programs children watch.
“Our research shows that the kids are seeing more than they were in 2008, so what more needs to be said?” Brownell said.
Any government regulation of food marketing appears to be a long way off, despite growing concerns about the public health burden of childhood obesity.
In April, a panel of representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department unveiled proposed voluntary guidelines for the food industry. The guidelines would ask food and drink makers to stop advertising products that do not have healthful ingredients or have unhealthful nutritional qualities—like too much sugar—on media that many children and teens will see. A final report is due by the end of the year.
Food and marketing companies strongly opposed such rules, and persuaded the group to soften the regulations, removing restrictions on marketing to teens, among other changes. They appear to have Republican legislators on their side. In a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee this month, Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., told regulators he did not think the guidelines would do anything to improve children’s health.
“The (group) should completely withdraw these recommendations,” he said. Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., the chairman of the the energy committee's health subcommittee, described the initiative as “the first step toward Uncle Sam planning our family meals.”
According to the Rudd Center report, sugary drinks are heavily marketed to children through advertising and product placement on television programs they watch, using social media and the Internet, and through radio ads, retail promotions, and other methods. Black children were the largest target of such marketing, the report found; they saw between 80 percent and 90 percent more television ads than white children and visited beverage websites 25 percent more often. According to the report, several brands market specifically to the black audience.
The report also found that energy drinks, often with high and undisclosed levels of caffeine, were being marketed to children. More kids than adults saw ads for 5-Hour Energy and Monster energy drinks, for example.