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Aussie call for junk food ban makes sense for U.S.

Published May 07. 2011 09:00AM

The incongruity kept me watching.

Sometime in the 1980s, I was channel surfing after a hard Saturday workout when I saw the angst-filled alternative rock band R.E.M. performing a rather solemn song in front of dozens of happy-go-lucky teeny boppers on a dance show that was a bad imitation of "American Bandstand." Did these kids understand the song was about the foolishness of the Vietnam War?

Afterwards, the dancers sat in a circle around the band, and the emcee selected a few to ask questions. One boy asked lead singer Michael Stipes to settle an argument among his friends. Half interpreted a key line of the song just sung one way; half another.

The boy wanted to know which version was right.

Stipes refused to answer.

The boy looked as shocked as the emcee, who quickly went to a commercial. But I understood why Stipes wouldn't reveal the real lyrics on television. Not knowing makes it far more likely that the boy and his friends and thousands of others will keep arguing about the lyrics and listening to that song again and again and again.

And while Stipes' main concern may have been increasing sales of the record, he was actually doing his fans a favor. It can be fun and even intellectually stimulating to ponder a question that may never be definitively answered.

That's why we still discuss the JFK assassination seemingly every year at its anniversary. That's why some English professors devote days of class to whether Hamlet is really seeing his father's ghost in the scenes that lead to the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

And that's why I should devote another column and you should give serious thought to the degree of influence food advertising has on America's youth.

This winter, based on results on a survey conducted by their Cancer Council and Heart Foundation, the Australian Medical Association asked their government to ban junk food advertising aimed at young people. Nearly one out of every four respondents, teens who would be in eighth through eleventh grades in our school system, admitted to being overweight or obese, which means the actual number is probably higher.

And more than half of them also admitted that they had tried a new food or drink within the last month just because they saw it advertised. Additionally, one-quarter ate at a specific fast food restaurant simply because of a special offer or giveaway, and one out of five claimed to consume a drink or a food just because it's linked to a movie or sports star through ads.

These results and the foundation's request should not surprise Americans. In 2009, Health Psychology published an extensive study performed by the psychology department at Yale University.

In the summary, Jennifer L. Harris, John A. Bargh, and Kelly D. Brownell declared that "efforts to reduce unhealthy food advertising to children are definitely needed." In fact, they also wrote that "reduced exposure" to the incessant onslaught of unhealthy food advertising "would be beneficial for all age groups."

Now if you're often skeptical of the latest health-related research, you have good reason. About the same time that the Australian Medical Association was releasing the results of the survey, for example, research published in Age and Ageing was claiming that vitamin E supplementation extended the life span by 24 percent of subjects over 71 years of age.

Even though the researchers concluded that vitamin E supplementation is not a panacea, any positive findings are noteworthy since medical community has viewed vitamin E supplementation as worthless at best and dangerous at worst since a disastrous Finnish study in the 1990s.

It was stopped early because the mortality rate of the cigarette smokers supplementing with vitamin E was so high that the researchers feared the supplementation itself was in some way responsible for the deaths.

Unfortunately, flip-flops like these make many question all health-related research, but the research on the effect of advertising unhealthy foods has encountered no such flip-flops. What it's found in Europe where there are more restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods to children than in the U.S. is that advertising is to blame for up to 18 percent of the childhood obesity.

If that seems to be a stretch, consider that the aforementioned Yale study found that children consumed 45 percent more snack food when exposed to snack food advertising. Combine that with an earlier study cited in the Yale paper that showed even well fed adults eat more food if exposed to external food cues, like advertising, and you should be able to acknowledge that unhealthy food advertising increases the consumption of unhealthy foods even if you take a with-everybody-but-me attitude.

In short, advertising is a powerful force. Why else would U.S. food manufacturers spend more than $350 million a year on toy giveaways alone?

Now the question is: To what degree do we want advertisers to control this force and by logical extension the health of our youth?

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