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  1. Analysis
February 9, 2010

Mrs Obama moves to tackle childhood obesity

The launch in the US today of a major initiative on childhood obesity, to be led by First Lady Michelle Obama, underlines the administration’s commitment to tackling the problem. Ben Cooper looks at the implications for food companies and for self-regulation.

The launch in the US today of a major initiative on childhood obesity, to be led by First Lady Michelle Obama, underlines the administration’s commitment to tackling the problem. Ben Cooper looks at the implications for food companies and for self-regulation.

Having a public figure fronting a public health campaign is a way of gaining media attention but success may then hinge on how much attention the celebrity can attract.

This will not be a problem for the “Let’s Move” national childhood obesity campaign being launched today (9 February) by Michelle Obama. In the US, celebrities simply don’t come any bigger than the First Lady.

But Mrs Obama is doing far more than simply providing a figurehead for the campaign. She is fully engaged with this issue, having given a number of speeches addressing the problem over the past few months. The campaign itself has been flagged up for some time. Equally important, her involvement speaks to President Obama’s own commitment to the issue.

The campaign will focus on areas such as encouraging more physical activity for children, providing healthier food choices in schools, improving food labelling, increasing weight management programmes for children and enhancing infrastructures to allow for more walking and cycling.

What is already clear is that the campaign is taking a holistic approach to the problem, and engaging with many different stakeholders, such as the American Academy of Pediatricians, which is partnering with the Government to train pediatricians to work more closely with families on weight control. By the same token, industry will certainly be given an opportunity to contribute, and the food industry has wasted no time in backing the Obama initiative.

Last month, Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA), said the commitment shown by the First Lady will be extraordinarily helpful as we all work to solve this critical issue”. Bailey continued: “Doing our part to help win this critical battle is a top priority for the food and beverage industry, and we are already taking significant steps to create and encourage healthier food choices. We applaud the First Lady for making childhood obesity a top priority and look forward to working with her to address one of the nation’s most significant health care problems.”

GMA said it looked forward to working with Michelle Obama to identify new steps that can be taken by both the private and public sectors to promote healthy eating, greater access to healthy choices, and more physical activity. “We all have a role to play if we are going to reduce the number of children and adults who are obese or seriously overweight,” Bailey said.

However, while the campaign may be seeking involvement from all stakeholders, behind the consensual language that has marked out much of the Obama rhetoric so far, there lies a steely determination to back up words with deeds, and legislation if necessary.

Some measures in the campaign, for instance tax breaks for grocery stores to move into poorly served communities, will require Congressional approval. As part of the launch, the President is to sign a memorandum to create the first-ever federal task force on childhood obesity, involving several federal agencies. President Obama and his appointees in various departments have already shown a willingness to engage actively through government action.

The intervention last year by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the labelling of better-for-you foods underlined the administration’s willingness to intervene with practical, hands-on measures. More recently, government departments have been turning their attention the extremely thorny and controversial area of children’s food advertising.

An inter-agency working group, comprising representatives from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, was briefed last year to prepare a report to Congress on the subject. It is scheduled to publish its findings this month for consultation, before the final report is presented to Congress in July.

Food companies were given a sneak preview at a forum on children’s food advertising convened by the FTC in December. The Working Group was directed to develop recommended standards foods would have to meet to be allowed to be marketed to children and determine the scope of the media to which those standards should apply.

The three standards outlined at the Forum have set much more exacting limits on food and drink producers than voluntary measures currently in place, so the consultation period will see some vigorous debate between the food industry, representatives of the media industry, government and public health experts.

While GMA chief government affairs officer Mary Sophos was invited to make a presentation at the Forum, using it as an opportunity to present what the GMA describes as “new data showing that children today are seeing fewer food, beverage and restaurant advertisements, and the mix has shifted to more ads that promote healthful choices”, industry advocates are concerned at the tenor of the provisional guidelines.

Elaine Kolish, director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a self-regulatory initiative involving 16 major food and drinks producers created in 2006 under the auspices of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB), is concerned about the “very rigorous” criteria outlined in December and the prohibitions they would impose on manufacturers. Kolish is hoping that concessions will be made during the consultation period. “As they are currently constructed I think it will have a very serious impact and I think that’s why the [consultation] is so important.”

The good news for food manufacturers is that any government intervention stemming from the inter-agency working group will comprise only voluntary guidelines, unlike the mandatory measures being created by the FDA on labelling.

As to the future of the CFBAI, the worrying precedent is that when the FDA announced its measures last year, the fledgling industry initiative – the Smart Choices labelling programme – dissolved more or less immediately. However, Kolish believes the initiative could have an enhanced role to play once the official voluntary guidelines are introduced as the “transparency and monitoring mechanism” for the government guidelines.

She points out that the CFBAI already has a strong working relationship with the FTC.”They support and applaud self-regulation. They asked BBB to do more in this area in 2005 and that’s in part why this initiative was begun. I don’t think they are thinking about it being dismantled. I think they are hoping it can just evolve.”

Bruce Silverglade of consumer protection campaign group the Center for Science in the Public Interest also sees a role for the CFBAI after the government guidelines are introduced. “There could be a role if they adopted the government guidelines as their own and did some serious arm-twisting to get companies to comply in order to head off the possibility of mandatory regulation.”

But he also sees the creation of the voluntary advertising standards as part of the “sea change” in food policy under the Obama administration, in which the Michelle Obama campaign is a key element. Michelle Obama’s involvement in this issue is extremely significant on two counts. There is enormous public attention paid to the First Lady in the US, far greater than that paid to the spouses of Prime Ministers and Heads of State in many other countries. Her involvement guarantees massive media attention for the campaign.

As Pamela Bailey put it: “There is no American better positioned to lead a national effort to combat obesity than the First Lady.”

But her high profile is only part of the story. Michelle Obama’s involvement stems not only from her commitment to the issue but that of the President. The FDA move last year showed that the President, both directly and through his appointees in various government departments, is prepared to engage in this issue.

Industry will be given every chance to contribute and – as the provisional advertising guidelines bear out – voluntary measures and self-regulation will be given time to work. But the onus on industry to make them work and to contribute proactively to tackling the problem has increased markedly.

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