Ban on Fast-Food TV Advertising Would Reverse Childhood Obesity

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A ban on U.S. fast-food advertisements could reduce the number of overweight children by as much as 18%, according to a new study published in the Journal of Law and Economics.


The study also reports that eliminating the tax deductibility associated with TV advertising would result in a reduction of childhood obesity, though in smaller numbers.

The study was conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), with funding from the National Institutes of Health. NBER economists Shin-Yi Chou, PhD, of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA; Inas Rashad, PhD, of Georgia State University in Atlanta; and Michael Grossman, PhD, of The City University of New York Graduate Center coauthored the paper, which measured the number of hours of fast-food TV advertising messages viewed by children on a weekly basis.

The authors found that a ban on fast-food TV ads during children’s programming would reduce the number of overweight children ages 3–11 by 18%, while also lowering the number of overweight adolescents ages 12–18 by 14%. The effect is more pronounced for males than females.

Though a ban would be effective, the authors also question whether such a high degree of government involvement—and the costs of implementing such policies—is a practical option. Should the United States pursue that path, it would follow Sweden, Norway and Finland as the only countries to have banned commercial sponsorship of children’s programs.

“We have known for some time that childhood obesity has gripped our culture, but little empirical research has been done that identifies television advertising as a possible cause,” says Dr. Chou. “Hopefully, this line of research can lead to a serious discussion about the type of policies that can curb America’s obesity epidemic.”

The study also found that eliminating tax deductibility tied to advertising would similarly produce declines in childhood obesity, albeit at a smaller rate of 5% to 7%. Advertising is considered a business expense and, as such, can be used to reduce a company’s taxable income. The authors deduce that, because the corporate income tax rate is 35%, eliminating the tax deductibility of food advertising costs would be equivalent to increasing the price of advertising by 54%. Such an action would consequently result in a reduction of fast-food advertising messages by 40% for children and 33% for adolescents.

A 2006 report issued by the Institute of Medicine indicated there is compelling evidence linking food advertising on television and increased childhood obesity. “Some members of the committee that wrote the report recommended congressional regulation of television food advertisements aimed at children, but the report also said that the final link that would definitively prove that children had become fatter by watching food commercials aimed at them cannot be made,” Dr. Grossman says. “Our study provides evidence of that link.”

The CDC estimates that, between 1970 and 1999, the percentage of overweight children ages 6–11 more than tripled to 13%. Adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 also saw a significant increase, reaching 14%. Research indicates there is an 80% chance an overweight adolescent will become an obese adult and that more than 300,000 deaths can be attributed to obesity and weight in the United States every year.

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