As First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to the NAACP convention in Kansas City about childhood obesity Monday, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) continued his work behind the scenes to stem junk food advertising to kids. A new bill introduced by Kucinich could raise billions of dollars in revenue to fund child nutrition and anti-obesity initiatives by preventing companies from writing off advertising of junk food targeted at kids.
Taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the spread of the obesity epidemic, Kucinich says, since under current federal law marketing expenses for the junk- and fast-food industries are tax-deductible. The legislation offers an easy win for increasingly hysterical deficit hawks, and would provide much-needed funds for Democrats looking to pass more aid programs, such as renewed unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.
"I commend the First Lady for her dedication to stopping the epidemic of childhood obesity and for shedding light on the problem of food marketing to children," Kucinich wrote in a letter to colleagues. His measure, HR 4310, would prohibit any company from claiming a tax deduction for expenses derived from advertising to children any fast food or food of limited nutritional value. He cites a study suggesting that eliminating the federal subsidies of food advertising directed at youth could significantly reduce obesity rates.
But if deductions for food advertising expenses are considered subsidies, so are many other types of business expense write-offs, such as those for guns and cigarettes. Why should lawmakers single out the snack food industry?
Michelle Obama suggests it's a good place to start. She told her audience today that 50 percent of African-American children will develop diabetes, and a recent report on the state of physical education in the country shows that among children ages six to 11, 33 percent are overweight and 17 percent are obese.
As much as 50 percent of all television advertising during children's programs is dedicated to food and the vast majority of these advertisements are for junk food, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The data showed that of over 8,000 ads aired during children's shows, zero advertised fresh fruits or vegetables.
The advertising seems to be paying off, judging by its volume and cost. The Institute of Medicine estimates that in 2004 more than $11 billion was spent on all types of food marketing and advertising, with approximately $10 billion devoted to food and beverage advertising aimed at children.
"Simply put, marketing to children works -- companies would not make such a substantial investment if it were ineffective," Kucinich said in a statement.
"Because young children lack the cognitive skills and abilities of older children and adults, they do not comprehend commercial messages in the same way as do more mature audiences, and, hence, are uniquely susceptible to advertising influence," according to a 2004 Institute of Medicine report.
Further, research has shown that early branding leads to strong brand loyalties that can last a lifetime and even override other forms of preference. Marion Nestle writes in her book Food Politics that eighth-grade students who stated their preferences for brand-name sodas over generic sodas were unable to identify those "favorites" during a brand-blind taste test, often choosing the generic brand instead.
The new legislation would direct the Secretary of the Treasury, in conjunction with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, to implement regulations regarding the definitions of fast food and junk food.
Approximately 50 countries, including Australia, Sweden, and Great Britain, already have laws limiting food advertising that targets youth. Kucinich's legislation has 25 cosponsors so far and is endorsed by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Obesity Action Coalition, and the American Public Health Association.