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Food industry advertising overwhelms campaign to fight obesity

Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005

New Report Shows Food Industry Advertising Overwhelms Government’s “5 A Day” Campaign to Fight Obesity and Promote Healthy Eating

Food, beverage, candy, and restaurant advertising expenditures weigh in at $11.26 billion in 2004, versus $9.55 million to promote healthful eating

A report released today documents how money spent to advertise foods including soda, candy, snacks and fast foods, dwarfs the dollars spent to promote the California and Federal “5 A Day” programs to encourage eating vegetables and fruits. The report, written by Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, and the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), a nonprofit health advocacy organization working with communities of color, concludes that this imbalance is one of the key factors contributing to unhealthful dietary trends in the United States that have led to the obesity crisis.
“The system is completely out of balance,” said Betsy Imholz, Director of Consumers Union’s West Coast Office in San Francisco. “The junk food industry is spending billions of dollars every year to inundate consumers at every turn with their messages to buy and consume food with little or no nutritional value. Public health and nutrition messages—and parental efforts to foster healthful eating habits—are simply being drowned out.”
The Surgeon General has warned that the United States is in the midst of an obesity epidemic; some medical experts deem it the most pressing public health issue facing the United States. As of 2002, nearly two-thirds of all adults in the United States were obese or overweight. Obesity has doubled in the past ten years in California, and so the Governor is holding a major obesity summit on the issue on September 15, 2005, in Sacramento. The cost of obesity to California is estimated at $6.4 billion annually, and $47.5 billion nationwide.
In “Out of Balance,” released on the eve of the summit, Consumers Union and CPEHN use just-released data from Advertising Age to analyze the amount of money spent on the unending barrage of food brand advertising. The groups found that food, beverage, candy and restaurant advertising hit $11.26 billion in 2004, compared to a mere $9.55 million to advertise the Five A Day campaign, which promotes eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily. The ad budget for the top-spending fast food restaurants alone came in at $2.3 billion, roughly 240 times greater than the communications budget for the 5 A Day campaigns combined. The advertising budget for Snickers, a single brand of candy, is nearly eight times greater than the advertising budget for the entire 5 A Day California and federal programs.
The $11.26 billion total does not include any expenditures for less traditional marketing such as product placements in television and movie content; brand internet environments; special promotions; word of mouth marketing; and cell phone and text messaging ads. Therefore, the $11.26 billion overall advertising figure highlighted, thus, vastly understates the true extent of marketing expenditures by these companies.
The “5 A Day” program started in California in 1988 as a pilot funded by the National Cancer Institute. The California pilot became a federal public-private partnership program in 1991, with the National Cancer Institute joining forces with a new “Produce for Better Health Foundation.” The program aims to promote healthful eating, prevent cancer and other chronic diseases, and curb weight gain by increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables. Public awareness of the program’s dietary recommendation has grown from 8 to 36 percent since the federal program began in 1991. Produce for Better Health has declared September 10-17, 2005 “National Five a Day Week”.
“The 5 A Day program has demonstrated success, even with an extremely limited communications budget, but 64% of Americans are still unaware of the importance of eating five or more servings of fruit and vegetables every day, “ noted Betsy Imholz of Consumers Union. “What can we expect? The 5 A Day message is at best a hushed whisper compared to the persistent din of unhealthful foods advertising.”
“The epidemic of obesity tracks the ‘epidemic’ of junk food advertising,” said Ellen Wu, Executive Director of CPEHN. “The imbalance in advertising between healthful and unhealthful messages must be addressed if we hope to stem the obesity epidemic hitting communities of color with particular force.”
While federal bodies including the Institute of Medicine and Federal Trade Commission examine issues related to food marketing to children, the report recommends policy approaches California officials could take to correct the imbalance. One measure would be eliminating marketing of unhealthful foods in schools. The majority of children and adolescents are exposed to advertising and other marketing activities in public schools, and the bulk of these marketing efforts are financed through companies that sell foods of minimal nutritional value or foods high in fat, salt, or sugar.
On the other side of the imbalance, the report urges substantially increasing the funding to California’s 5 A Day campaign. California led the way in creating this model public health initiative and the report argues that the state needs to find substantially increased and ongoing revenue to enhance the effort in order to fight obesity. Ways suggested to raise the dollars for this increase include disallowing state tax deductions for advertising related to unhealthy foods or dedicating the proceeds of a small tax on soda, candy, snack foods or fast foods to the 5 A Day effort.
For the full report, click here.
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Betsy Imholz, CU, 415-431-6747
Mark Savage, CU, 415-431-6747
Ellen Wu, CPEHN, 510-832-1160
Consumers Union is a nonprofit membership organization founded in 1936 to provide consumers with information, education, and counsel about goods, services, health, and personal finance, and to advocate for consumers in every possible forum. Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports and www.consumerreports.org, derives its income solely from the sale of these and other publications and services, and from noncommercial contributions, grants, and fees.
The California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN) works to ensure that all Californians have access to quality healthcare and can live healthy lives. CPHEN gathers the strength of communities of color to build a united and powerful voice in health advocacy. Together, they work to evolve healthcare from a one-size-fits-all approach to a system that works for people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds.