Food, Children, And The IOM (2006 Jan)

by Barry A. Liebling

In December 2005 the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a part of the National Academy of Sciences, published the executive summary of “Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?” at The document asserts that “marketing influences the diets and health prospects of children.” It condemns food marketers for pushing unhealthy foods, identifies marketers as being culpable for children’s adiposity, and calls for sweeping changes to fix these problems.

It is not controversial that it is good for children to be healthy and to have nutritious foods in their diets. The issue is how to achieve the desired outcomes ethically. Consider two diametrical approaches – free market capitalism and government intervention.

The free market approach, which I advocate, is based on the recognition of individual rights. Evaluating and purchasing food for young children is the job of parents. Companies that manufacture and market foods for children should make and sell products that have value and should advertise and promote their products honestly. Private companies compete with one another in their efforts to make nutritious and appealing products, and their success is the result of decisions made by parents. The proper role of government with respect to marketing is to protect individual rights – to prohibit coercive force and fraud, to assure that any product claims – whether to parents or to children – are true.

The government intervention approach rejects the individual rights position that adults should make their own decisions and take responsibility for the welfare of their children. An interventionist believes that individuals are not wise enough and do not have the right to manage their lives. Instead, the government should use its power to decide what foods will be sold to children and how marketing will be done.

A perusal of the IOM executive summary reveals that the authors are zealots for government intervention. Rather than being tentative, their call for action is “a public health priority of the highest order.”

What is driving the urgency? The executive summary is explicit in claiming that the “recommendations presented in this report are anchored in the presentation and interpretation of the evidence.” But if you take the authors at their word their case is weak. The authors say that the only “strong evidence” in the study is that television advertising “influences” preferences, requests, and short-term food consumption of children under 12. Note the word “influences” is different from “determines” or “is a major factor” or “is as significant as parental guidance.” Furthermore, the executive summary states that “the current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any findings about a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity.”

Why say that the recommendations depend on evidence if the evidence is equivocal? Do the authors want readers to believe it is empirical research, rather than their desire to intervene, that is leading them to call for sweeping changes? Alternatively, is the action standard of the research so lenient that detecting any influence at all is sufficient to justify coercive force?

And what does the report say should be done? The executive summary has ten recommendations – eight of which explicitly call for markedly increasing government involvement in children’s food marketing.

The popular press has emphasized the recommendation that licensed characters – as in cartoon characters – be used only to promote foods “that support healthful diets for children.” Of course, an agent of the government will be in charge of determining which foods qualify.

More significant than the licensed character demand is the call for government to “explore the full range of possible approaches” including “agricultural subsidies, taxes, legislation, regulation, federal nutrition programs.” The authors of the report are yearning for public sector meddling in everything related to marketing food to children.

The IOM authors seem implacable in their determination to harness children’s television advertising. Their threat reveals that they intend to leave marketers no alternatives. The executive summary says that “if voluntary efforts related to advertising…are unsuccessful, Congress should enact legislation.” This is parallel to a gunman saying that if you do not voluntarily comply he will use his weapon.

Bear in mind that the call to control food marketing to children has implications for food marketing to adults. If the IOM is successful in pushing its agenda, the same arguments can be applied to proscribing the marketing of adult foods that government agents do not regard as healthy.

The lesson to be learned from the IOM report is not that “marketing influences the diets and health prospects of children.” It is that leftist ideology influences the goals and tactics of IOM investigators.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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