Regulators Relaxing Proposed Curbs on Junk Food Ads Aimed at Kids

To combat childhood obesity, federal regulators in April proposed that food makers and restaurant companies voluntarily stop advertising junk food to kids.

The aim was to curb TV commercials, online ads and other pitches aimed at children under age 18 for, as Reuters reports, salty, fatty or very sweet foods. The regulatory plan, developed by an interagency working group, also would have urged companies to stop using clowns and cartoon characters — such as Ronald McDonald and SpongeBob SquarePants — to advertise unhealthy foods.

Under pressure from industry groups, however, regulators from agencies involved in the effort said today that they would water down the proposal.

David Vladeck, who heads the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the working group would back off the cartoon character idea and also exempt children 12 and older from its recommendation.

Testifying at a Congressional hearing in Washington, Vladeck said, “As we studied the comments we got, we realized we were perhaps too ambitious.”

Still, that bit of backpedaling didn’t appear to placate Fred Upton, chairman of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee. He said the working group “unilaterally proposed guidelines that were so extreme that they would prevent the marketing to children of foods that most parents consider a win if their kids eat — such as yogurt, cheese sticks and even soup.”

As Adweek reports, with the exception of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who said he “couldn’t believe” what he was hearing from his Republican colleagues, even House Democrats were skeptical about the guidelines.

Waxman, for his part, pointed to what he said was the $1.6 billion that the food industry spends marketing to kids each year. He said the proposed regulatory guidelines were “a way not to have our kids subjected to advertising that they don’t know what to do with. They’re kids!”

The bottom line, as Adweek put it:  “It’s been a good day for the food, beverage and advertising lobbies and their fight against the federal government’s proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children. During a joint hearing of two House subcommittees … Republican members hammered away at the guidelines, echoing the key talking points that industry has used, including the potential loss of jobs and the prospect that voluntary guidelines won’t end up being all that voluntary.”

STUART SILVERSTEIN

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