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Food marketing and research on children lack government oversight

Federal regulations prohibit tobacco companies from advertising to children and prohibit profanity on television before 10 p.m.

Very little, thanks to outdated and weakened government control, according to a new legal analysis published in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics by researchers from the NYU School of Global Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

“The United States relies heavily on industry self-regulation, which has not kept pace with modern marketing practices,” the study’s author states. Jennifer Pomeranzassistant professor of public health policy and management at the NYU School of Global Public Health.

Self-regulation is insufficient in today’s marketing landscape

Commercial speech, including advertising, is largely protected by the First Amendment. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which protects consumers against deceptive and unfair trade practices, has limited authority over advertising directed at children. While the FTC collects and reports data on food advertising to young people and sues food companies for specific unfair and deceptive practices, Congress has stripped the agency of its authority to regulate marketing to children considered as disloyal in 1980, after the FTC tried to limit sweets. food and drink in advertisements on children’s television. The FTC has not attempted to use its authority on deceptive acts and practices, in part out of concern over similar reactions.

Instead, the United States relies heavily on food and beverage companies to self-regulate. The industry-created Children’s Food and Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) includes voluntary — and sometimes lax — nutrition standards for marketing to children. However, the researchers say the CFBAI’s shortcomings allow for questionable marketing that renders nutrition standards irrelevant: the initiative only applies to children under 12 and in media aimed at young children it is not s does not apply to packaging or stores, and allows companies to market their brands. by showing slightly healthier products that introduce children to unhealthy brand lines.

Importantly, today’s marketing to children goes far beyond traditional television advertising. Companies use a variety of tactics to reach children online, especially on YouTube. Products are often promoted using influencers and “sell-by-host”, where a program character runs an advertisement adjacent to children’s programming featuring the character, a practice that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned on TV but has no similar rule for online marketing.

“Modern marketing practices aim to blur the distinction between an advertisement and an entertainment,” says study author Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of politics at the Friedman School at Tufts. “Research indicates that even adults have difficulty identifying sponsored content online, so children surely need some protection against these predatory practices.”

The authors encourage Congress to restore the FTC’s authority to regulate unfair marketing to children and the FTC to review online food and beverage marketing, including the use of its deceptive practices authority.

Study children without rules

When universities want to do research involving human subjects, studies must be reviewed and approved by an institutional review board to protect participants, especially vulnerable populations like children. This is required by a federal policy called the Common Rule and applies to researchers receiving federal funds.

However, there are no similar requirements for commercial research on children. For example, a food company may have a child psychologist test tactics and messaging on children to determine the best way to persuade children to want products and influence their parents to buy them. without any supervision. This is especially problematic when companies target their unhealthy products at racial and ethnic minority youth.

“The disparity of rules for academic institutions seeking to engage in marketing research, which must obtain children’s assent and parental consent, versus the lack of requirements for for-profit entities engaged in research same activity, is striking”, write Pomeranz and Mozaffarian.

The researchers note that the food companies, which receive millions in tax subsidies, would meet the child search criteria set out by the common rule – if the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had signed on to the common rule like 20 other federal agencies have done it. . In light of the spirit and purpose of the common rule to protect research subjects, the authors urge federal and state attorneys general to take a closer look at corporate research on children.

What about the parents?

In many aspects of life, parents are expected to act as guardians for their children. Opponents of government regulation of marketing to children argue that government action undermines parental control.

“While it may have made sense when children primarily watched television and parents had more control over what their children watched, parental monitoring became less feasible in the face of covert online marketing practices such as selling per host and the use of influencers. In today’s media landscape, parents have little ability to act as the sole deciding factor in the types of foods presented to their children,” says Pomeranz. “The United States must move away from voluntary industry self-regulation toward effective policies that reflect current marketing practices.”

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (2R01HL115189-06A1).

About NYU School of Global Public Health

At the NYU School of Global Public Health (NYU GPH), we prepare the next generation of public health pioneers with the critical thinking skills, acumen, and entrepreneurial approaches needed to reinvent the public health paradigm. Dedicated to using a non-traditional, interdisciplinary model, NYU GPH aims to improve global health through a unique blend of study, research, and practice in global public health. The school is located in the heart of New York City and spans NYU’s global network across six continents. Innovation is at the heart of our ambitious approach, our thinking and our teaching. To learn more, visit: publichealth.nyu.edu

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