Unhealthy food ads targeting children deserve foreign ban

France recently joined the ranks of European countries weighing in on the effort to curb the rising percentage of obesity among children – currently at about 20 percent worldwide and growing by about 400,000 children each year, according to the World Health Organization.Food advertisements in France will now accompany cautions about eating too much sugar and fat, notes encouraging consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables and notes advising consumers to avoid snacking and to participate in physical activities.

These cautions, which were implemented March 1, shadow those recently passed in Britain, which require the printing of similar nutritional information on food packaging. Sweden and Norway, like France, have targeted advertising, though these country’s guidelines are stricter and ban TV advertisements targeted at children altogether, according to a March 1 Associated Press article.

It’s a grand idea.

Now, every time a British child opens up a package of cookies or a French child watches a commercial for Oreos, they’ll be halted by the caution to make their snack part of a well-balanced diet and – if it’s not too much trouble – to take a jog around the block after finishing their cookie.

Unfortunately, cutting kids off from advertising, requiring warning labels or disassociating celebrities and cartoons from junk food will not help reverse the Western hemisphere’s growing problem of obesity.

The French Health Ministry, which designed the new regulations, said the caution labels will let children “guide themselves” in their eating habits, according to the same AP article.

Since when are children in charge of choosing their own meals and snacks? It’s up to these children’s parents to make them stay home and eat fruits and vegetables.

If anything, caution labels and nutritional education should be aimed at parents who apparently are being unduly influenced by their children’s desires for junk food. It’s a parent’s responsibility to raise their child, and that includes instilling them with healthy eating habits through a nutritious diet.

Sheltering children from junk food advertisements would probably cut down on the grocery store temper tantrums of children who want their parents to buy soda and ice cream, which might make buying healthy food an easier task for parents.

Serisa Otey, a financial services assistant who has two children, said she thinks adding caution labels to food advertising and packaging would be helpful because she said children do have a large impact on what kind of foods parents buy.

But it’s not the government’s job to make getting children to eat healthier an easier task. Especially when the laws are walking a fine line between protecting consumer’s health and limiting companies’ freedom of speech. While the free speech line is much more sacred here in the United States, as regulations spread throughout Europe, Americans need to be concerned about whether similar rules will form in the United States.

A journalist or an advertiser’s freedom to report government propaganda or to distribute the results of a consumer report test are more paramount to society than a 30-second spot of Tony the Tiger talking about his sugary cereal. But, with regulations on Tony’s monologue about breakfast, the definition of freedom will inevitably begin to blur.

Janice Wood, an assistant professor of journalism who teaches a course in media law, said restrictions like those in Europe are unlikely in the United States because any product that is legal to sell in the United States is also legal to advertise.

“Our system has always said people are smart enough to take care of themselves,” she said. “Unfortunately, they don’t always do this.”

However, she said the United States could regulate food advertising if there was a substantial public interest to change it, but she doesn’t think labels ever really solve the problem.

“Even with cigarette warning labels, people still smoke,” Wood said. “If you put warning labels on junk food, I don’t know that that’s going to make a difference.”

So far, the United States has not followed suit in making mandatory regulations – though 10 major food and drink companies, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup, made a voluntary agreement in November to promote healthy eating in its advertising to children. The companies collectively agreed to stop advertising in elementary schools, to promote health when advertising in online games and to cut-down on the use of outside characters, according to a November 14 AP article.

Looking at the numbers, the United States has far more reason for concern. According to the AP, about one-third of adults are classified as obese while about 9 percent of adults are classified as such in France.

In an ideal society, these problems could be solved through responsible or regulated advertising, but the junk food epidemic stems from a much deeper issue and can’t be solved through advertising restrictions.

Attempting to remedy the world’s health situation by placing limits on speech will only cause additional problems, it won’t solve any of the issues at hand.

True, the right of Ronald McDonald to talk about hamburgers isn’t nearly as essential to creating an informed public as a newspaper’s right to print information about the latest U.N. resolution for its readers, but it’s still necessary.

Kathleen Thurber is a junior news-editorial journalism major from Colorado Springs, Colo.