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Seated Together at the Table



When leading researchers and advocates gathered for a conference this week studying ways to use communication to combat childhood obesity, their fellow conference-goers included some people they aren’t used to seeing at such events: Folks representing the food and beverage industry.
But that was the idea.
The inaugural Marketing Disease Prevention + Awareness Conference on Communicating Childhood Obesity Prevention and Policy, held Tuesday and Wednesday in Silver Spring, Md., was designed to bring together all of the players in the childhood obesity field. Doing so isn’t always easy; advocates frequently clash with industry officials on a variety of issues (including food marketing, which was a big discussion point during the conference). 
Although disagreements remain between the various players, there was a general agreement that everyone has a role to play in reversing obesity. “The single biggest obstacle is our inability to talk to one another,” said Dr. David Katz, the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. 
Katz kicked off the conference with a moving speech looking at the impact of the childhood obesity epidemic, from a dramatic increase in the diagnosis of diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes to increased health care costs. Changing environments and coming together on meaningful public policy will be key to reversing obesity, Katz said.
Katz compared human beings to “polar bears in the Sahara.” While polar bears are built to thrive in the bitter cold, with their heavy coats and ability to store fat, they would be lost in the desert.
The same is now true with people. Whereas once our survival required intense physical activity and living on scarce calories, now people live in an environment where calories are abundant and physical activity is often difficult to fit in.
“This is the problem we confront, and we need to think our way out of it,” Katz said. “No job is too big if it must be done.”
Katz noted that a big problem such as obesity requires many solutions, and a variety of them were presented during the two-day conference, including public-private partnerships.  
Kimberly Perry from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation outlined how her organization (which was founded by former President Bill Clinton) worked with beverage companies to craft an agreement designed to eliminate full calorie drinks offered in schools. Officials from the medical field shared how they are working to help doctors feel more comfortable talking to their young patients about obesity. Representatives from companies such as Discovery, Cartoon Network and the Sesame Street Workshop shared how they are using their media resources to conduct health and wellness campaigns targeting kids and their families.
But it was the presentations from food and beverage industry officials that drew the most attention.
Representatives from trade groups representing beverage companies, grocers and restaurants shared how industry is working to reduce obesity by doing things such as offering healthier items and putting calorie labels on products. Although some progress has been made, those officials acknowledged that change isn’t easy, nor does it happen overnight.
“If we don’t meet consumers’ need for taste at a price they can afford, it doesn’t matter whether the product is healthy,” said Robert Burns, vice president of nutrition and health policy for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “It takes a long a time to move consumers’ perception and consumers’ taste.”
And while industry officials said they are eager to work with obesity experts and advocates to combat the epidemic, they did push back when it came toproposed voluntary marketing guidelines put forth by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children last year that would urge companies to follow strong nutritional standards when marketing to kids.
The guidelines have not yet been implemented, and several industry experts argued that they are unlikely to be. Jim Davidson, executive director of the Alliance for American Advertising, said that the guidelines likely would not pass Supreme Court muster given similar court rulings tied to the First Amendment.  
Other industry officials said that they are working hard to self-regulate, pointing to the pledges of 17 big-name companies outlined in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which includes only advertising products that meet nutritional standards (although those are far less strict than what the IWG put forth).
“Self regulation has been meeting the challenge,” said Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the CFBAI.
Not surprisingly, obesity advocates disagreed, arguing that strict food and beverage marketing guidelines are needed to help reverse the epidemic. Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, noted that marketers heavily promote the 12 cereals deemed to have the worst nutritional value. The 12 best aren’t marketed at all.
“I really do have a lot of respect for that has been done by the CFBAI,” Schwartz said. “It’s gotten us part way down the field. But I don’t know if it’s enough.”