It isn't often that we get to see American teens in peak physical condition showcasing their athleticism on the world stage. So it was especially thrilling to watch the U.S. women's gymnastics team -- and other young Olympians -- win gold at this summer's London Olympics. Their achievements are an important reminder that it is still possible to be young and fit in America. But the sad fact is that the opportunity to be healthy is still eluding too many children and youth.
Recent NHANES data shows that almost 1 in 6 U.S. children and adolescents were obese in 2009-2010. These young people not only have a 70 percent chance of becoming obese adults, they are also at high risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and other health issues while they are still young. These challenges are concentrated in low-income and communities of color, where obesity rates continue to rise among children and youth and obesity-related chronic diseases lead to premature death among adults.
Ironically, much of the commercial advertising during the Olympics featured leading contributors to the obesity epidemic: unhealthy food and sugary beverages. Sponsors of the games spent millions to promote products that have little to no nutritional value and have been linked to obesity and its related illnesses.
And although the Olympics end, it seems as though the advertising doesn't. Multimillion dollar marketing campaigns play a significant role in nutrition by influencing what our children consume on a daily basis. And the kids who are most affected by obesity see more of it.
Research shows that African-American teens see 80 to 90 percent more TV ads for sugary beverages than white children, while Hispanic children and teens continue to see an increasing number of ads through Spanish-language television. African-American and Hispanic teens are also seen as prime targets for "multicultural" ads and digital "urban marketing" campaigns that leverage culturally-relevant music, sports teams, professional athletes and celebrities to sell unhealthy products. In fact, a former Coca-Cola marketing executive recently admitted that the company's strategy to increase sales of its sugary sodas included targeting African-Americans and Hispanics because, "We knew that if we got more products into those environments, those segments would drink more."
Meanwhile, African-American and Hispanic kids are also more likely to be living in communities with limited financial resources that also lack access to healthy food options and safe areas for physical activity. Economic need may make it difficult for low-income communities to say no to food and beverage marketers offering to sponsor local sports teams, parks and other community activities. These sponsorships are an inexpensive way to pay for lasting brand recognition and loyalty but community members consuming these products pay a steep price in terms of declining health and lost productivity.
The influence of constant marketing can make if difficult to make the healthy decision -- whether you're a child or an adult. But we all have a responsibility to make sure that everyone in our communities has the opportunity to make healthier choices.
Limiting the portion size of sugar-sweetened beverages, as proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Cambridge, Mass. Mayor Henrietta Davis, can make a healthy choice easier. Likewise, Richmond, Calif.'s proposed sugar-sweetened beverage tax may help curb consumption while also generating much-needed revenue that can be reinvested through programs that promote healthy eating and active living in the communities that need it most.
Critics decry proposals to tax or limit the portion size of sugary drinks as overreach by a government "nanny state" or as unfair "poor people taxes" that will disproportionately hurt low-income and communities of color. Policymakers seeking to pass similar proposals may be able to gain support by ensuring that the tax revenue goes directly back into the communities most affected -- specifically, toward supporting better nutrition and physical activity options for children in low-income schools and communities.
Across our nation, policymakers, community leaders, socially responsible businesses and families are collaborating to build healthy communities by prioritizing policies that encourage healthier lifestyles. Working together, we can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic and fulfill our responsibility to give our children the opportunity to live the healthiest lives possible.
This article first appeared on GlobalPolicy.tv.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is the president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm in Washington, DC and co-editor of Strengthening Communities: Social Insurance in a Diverse America.
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