TCS Daily

Take a Hike

By Duane D. Freese - July 19, 2005 12:00 AM

It's what kids do, not what adults say, that matters regarding obesity.

On the same day that the Federal Trade Commission finished a two day conference on food marketing and obesity and a couple days after the activist group Center for Science in the Public Interest called for warning labels on non-diet soda pop, up popped a study by scientists at the University of New Mexico that said most of the talk was so much hot air.

At the FTC, the villain -- at least of some of the rabid so-called consumer advocates -- was marketing. Not a lot of facts were presenting linking marketing and advertising to kids with childhood obesity. How could there be? Thin and fat kids see the same ads, play the same video games, demand the same stuff, eat the same food.

Research shows TV advertising aimed at kids -- in terms of dollars spent by the industry, minutes on TV and actually attention paid to it by youngsters -- has gone down even as childhood obesity has gone from 11% in the period 1988-90 to 16% in the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

As Todd Zywicki, a former FTC director of policy planning and now a George Mason University law professor who examined research on child advertising and obesity said, "The case for saying advertising is the cause of increasing obesity in children is pretty weak."

But while Zywicki's comments were submitted to the FTC, neither he nor other researchers who've found similar conclusions were invited to participate in the conference -- which ended up being the usual Washington tango of regulators and consumer advocates touting the seriousness of the obesity problem and industry spokesmen promising to do more to counter the trend. In short, much ado about nothing important -- or at least anything that will deal with childhood obesity really.

The big demon for Michael Jacobsen at CSPI's media event the day before the FTC conference was soda pop. He was absolutely appalled that the average male teen drinks two 12-ounce cans of soda a day, and girls 1-1/2. "Soft drink companies," he lamented, "are doing everything they can to pump up consumption, health be damned." Such as? "They make their products universally available," he said. And then, waving a three-liter generic cola bottle and comparing it to a 6-1/2 ounce Coke bottle from the 1950s, he intoned: "They're offering ever larger containers." And worst of all, he noted the container sold for just $1, "less than the cost of a bottle of milk that is one-third the size."

Caroline M. Apovian, an associate professor of Medicine and Pediatrics as Boston University of Medicine, told the media of three studies that claimed kids who drank more soda had a greater chance of becoming obese. Her conclusion: "Drinking less soda is the single best way to curb the obesity epidemic."

And bad teeth and bones, too, apparently. For along with the warning label, "Drinking too much non-diet soda may contribute to weight gain," CSPI would also have sugared soft drinks offer these injunctions: "Drink fewer non-diet soft drinks to help prevent tooth decay" and "Drinking soft drinks instead of milk or calcium-fortified beverages may increase your risk of brittle bones."

Or as the group Tesla sang so long ago: "Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs. .... Do this, don't do that, can't you read the signs."

Too bad the folks at the FTC conference and CSPI event hadn't read the study by UNM researchers in the Lancet.

It provided a glimpse at what is going on in the real world. The researchers tracked changes in body mass index, skin fold, physical activity and eating habits of 2,200 girls in three cities for 10 years, from age nine to 19.

The results? Even as eating remained the same, the rate of excess weight and obesity doubled among girls whose physical activity had markedly declined.

In other words, fast food and soft drinks weren't the culprits. Neither was advertising of it. It was a decline in exercise that mattered. Just two to five hours of brisk walking a week -- 17 to 43 minutes a day -- would prevent girls gaining 9 to 20 pounds, according to the study. And even if it didn't prevent weight gain, the additional exercise likely would make the girls healthier and feel better than all the dieting advice coming out of Washington conferences in events.

But who's the bad guy there? Who can Washington do-gooders get exercised about and perform their favorite physical activities of browbeating and flapping their gums? No one. That would leave them with nothing to do but take a hike -- which come to think of it, wouldn't be such a bad sign to wave at the next obesity event.


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