According to research by University of Illinois economist Kathy Baylis, an outright ban on junk food advertising aimed at children would be more effective than the current industry-led ban.
Based on the economist’s published research, a ban covering the entire U.S. media market would be the most effective policy tool for reducing fast-food consumption in children regarding increasing concerns over childhood obesity and associated health risks.
According to Medical Xpress, Kathy Baylis, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics, studied the ban on junk-food advertising imposed in the Canadian province of Quebec from 1984 to 1992 and its effect on fast-food purchases.
The study compared English-speaking households, who were less likely to be affected by the ban, to French-speaking households, and found evidence that the ban reduced fast-food expenditures by 13 percent per week in French-speaking households, leading to between 11 million and 22 million fewer fast-food meals eaten per year, or 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion fewer calories consumed by children.
“Given the nature of Quebec’s media market and demographics, a ban would disproportionately affect French-speaking households, but would not affect similar households in Ontario or households without children in either province,” Baylis said.
Baylis says the study is applicable to the U.S., although the results wouldn’t be as powerful if bans were instituted state by state.
“What we found is that advertising bans are most effective when children live in an isolated media market, and it’s only because they’re in an isolated media market that they’re getting these effects,” she said.
“If any state on their own decided to do this, it would be problematic. If the U.S. as a whole decided to do it, our research indicates that such a ban could be successful. The comparison is a strongly regulated system in Quebec to a less strongly regulated system in Ontario, and we still found an effect. If anything, our study is finding a lower-bound of that effect.”
Baylis warns that the study is based on data from the 1980s and ’90s. “Obviously, the Internet has exploded since then, and computer games have also risen in popularity,” she said. “So we don’t know how well a television ban would work when children are spending an increasing amount of time online rather than watching TV.
“So it would be very hard to enforce an Internet ban, and the only way to tackle it would be how they’re doing it in Quebec, which is to prohibit advertising websites for junk food during cartoons, or even on product packaging in stores….”
To those who argue that absolute bans don’t work and a voluntary approach to self-regulation is better, Baylis insists that is simply not true, and says her research proves it.
Failure of San Francisco’s Happy Meal Ban
San Francisco attempted to discourage children from consuming unhealthy McDonald’s Happy Meals by creating a city ordinance banning toy giveaways with children’s meals at fast-food chain restaurants unless the meal met San Francisco’s nutritional standards.
To comply with the new ordinance, San Francisco McDonald’s owners simply charged 10 cents for the addition of a toy, and donated the proceeds to the Ronald McDonald House Charity.
“It’s misguided to think that this is going to combat childhood obesity,” said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who grew up in San Francisco. “We should be focusing on school lunches, where there are a lot more calories and fat than Happy Meals, and what kids are eating at home.”
Ayoob notes that banning food choices should be replaced by mandating physical education for all grades in the school system.
The same could be said about an outright government ban on junk food advertising aimed at children. It’s way too late in the game to believe junk food advertising bans will be effective in a market that has already been saturated and exploited in virtually every country in the world.