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7/2/2013 8:05:00 AM
Do TV, other media play a part in nation's increasing obesity rate?

A Supreme Court justice once famously said about pornography, "I'll know it when I see it," regarding his test for judging what materials should be considered protected speech.

A similar test may hold true for obesity and whether it should be considered a disease. But in June, the American Medical Association made that determination, recognizing it as a disease and overriding the opinion of a blue-ribbon panel created by the AMA that had said it wasn't.

The AMA knows obesity can cause all sorts of health complications, heart disease and diabetes being two of the most common.

But our complex relationship with food plays into all of this, too, as does the TV and other media we consume -- especially media messages aimed at kids.

America is, as people love to say, the richest nation on earth. And we grow food in abundance, enough to feed not only ourselves but a good-sized chunk of the world.

So, given our prosperity and abundance, advertisers who would love to separate us from our money pitch -- among other things -- food, food and more food. The ads are everywhere: in print, online and on TV.

Advertisers can use all sorts of tricks, slogans, photography and jingles to make us want the product they're selling. "Betcha can't eat just one!" "Have a Coke and a smile." "I'm lovin' it." And on, and on, and on.

Selling to adults is one thing. But selling to kids is another. That's when the fight becomes unfair.

Most of the disposable income kids have comes from their parents in the first place. So when Mom or Dad go on a supermarket mission, the kids either wheedle their folks to get the latest version of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, or throw a tantrum in the store if they don't get what they want. And who hasn't used food as a reward to mollify the wee ones?

Pamela Mejia -- ironically, a media researcher who studies how the food industry markets products to children -- posted a blog for the Berkeley Media Studies Group in January about her 22-month-old daughter wailing like there was no tomorrow once she saw Dora the Explorer's face on a box of fruit-flavored gummy candies inside a Target store.

"'No no, baby,' I murmur, trying to pull the box away, but she won't be dissuaded -- she's found Dora, and she won't let go," Mejia wrote. "She has no idea what's in the box, but because of what's on it, it's all she wants. People are starting to look at me and my plaintive, fussy daughter. I'm afraid we won't get out of the store without a scene unless I let her have the candies -- candies that I don't particularly want her to eat, since they're full of sugar, dyes and preservatives, and nothing else of value. What do I do? What does anyone do?"

Mejia said it was "my first real-world experience with the tactics the food industry uses to target children."

Last year, Disney Channel issued a stricter set of guidelines that will go fully into effect in a couple of years -- once ad contracts signed before the new rules were developed run out -- that will ban the presence of sugary, fatty junk foods on their channels as program sponsors.

Nickelodeon's cable channels -- in another irony, the same channels that launched Dora as a household word to the preschool set -- have steadfastly refused, though. A campaign has been renewed to get Nickelodeon to cut out the junk food ads. Whether the AMA declaration will supply the needed leverage with Nickelodeon is anyone's guess at the moment.

Nickelodeon has nibbled at the edges of healthier eating. A popular show on Nickelodeon, "iCarly," was the subject of a veggie recipe contest last summer. Nickelodeon budgeted $3 million for the campaign. But that's relative chicken feed, as Birds-Eye chipped in as a promotional partner.

A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest of ads appearing on Nickelodeon showed that food is the third most-advertised item, behind movies and toys. Food accounts for 18 percent of Nickelodeon's ads. But 70 percent of those ads were for sugary, fatty and/or salty foods that wouldn't make Disney's guidelines.

Are we at risk of creating a generation of husky sons and plus-size daughters?

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