Media and entertainment giant Walt Disney Co’s new steps to limit junk food advertising on TV shows geared toward children is the latest salvo in the nation’s fight against childhood obesity. But it left critics questioning whether the moves were enough to cut the growing waistlines of U.S. youth.
The new initiative, announced on Tuesday in a high-profile event featuring first lady Michelle Obama, will end some junk-food advertising on Disney television, radio and online programs intended for children under the age of 12.
Disney is also launching its own “Mickey Check” label for food it deems to be nutritious to help promote certain healthier foods in grocery stores and other retailers.
The plan follows New York City’s recent proposal to ban jumbo-sized sugary drinks. The growing campaign - ranging from voluntary industry action to government and policy steps - aim to curb consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods that play a role in the nation’s obesity epidemic.
The Disney announcement confirmed details sources gave Reuters on Monday and landed amid increasing pressure on the food and beverage industries to promote healthier products.
The new guidelines, which start in 2015, set limits on the number of calories and amount of fat and added sugar for main and side dishes and snacks. Kraft Foods Inc’s Oscar Mayer Lunchables and Capri Sun products, for example, would not make the cut, Disney said.
But some health advocates criticized Disney’s efforts, saying they would do little to shift children’s eating habits and would not be implemented soon enough.
“Three more years is a really long time,” said Josh Golin, Associate Director for Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
The move was welcomed by Obama and other health advocates for putting the might of the $41 billion company behind fighting obesity in children and teenagers.
Nearly one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, and research shows youth are increasingly being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases related to obesity that were once thought of as only adult conditions. Data has shown junk food ads as one major contributor to the problem.
Obama, who has championed healthier eating and exercise habits as part of her “Let’s Move” initiative, and Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger both said they hoped the Disney effort would spur other food and beverage companies to do more.
Various industry groups representing food and beverage makers said their members already take steps to limit promotions to children under 12.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, echoing the sentiment of other industry groups, said its members welcome Disney’s announcement and “enthusiastically support” Obama’s initiative.
Last year, top U.S. food and drink makers including Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and Kellogg Co agreed to industry-created voluntary nutrition guidelines for products marketed toward children under the age of 12. But the food, beverage and restaurant industries as a whole have successfully fought most government oversight on food advertising to children.
A 2006 Institute of Medicine report said junk food marketing contributed to childhood obesity, and consumers and health advocates increasingly are calling on food, beverage and restaurant firms to limit marketing to children.
Fast-food restaurants, in particular, have been under fire for using free toys to promote its meals for children. Some, such as Jack in the Box, have stopped offering them. Industry leader McDonald’s Corp still gives away toys but has reduced the french fry portion and added apple slices to its popular Happy Meals for kids.
Packaged food companies have been reformulating some products by reducing calories, sugar and sodium while adding fiber and whole grains. Some of those products have failed to find customers.
Earlier this year Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world’s largest retailers, announced with some fanfare that it would label certain foods such as eggs as “Great For You” and try to lower prices on healthier food options.
Disney, which owns the ABC-TV network and a host of cable channels, introduced voluntary guidelines in 2006 that prohibited licensing of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters for foods that do not meet minimum nutritional requirements.
That helped sell more than 2 billon servings of Disney-licensed fruits and vegetables since then, Iger said at the event, which featured a Mickey Mouse character making yogurt parfaits surrounded by buckets of lemons, oranges and apples.
Disney’s new effort will not allow advertising during children’s programming on its networks, including ABC and Disney XD and its child-focused websites, for foods that fail to meet minimum nutrition requirements.
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said parents will still see some ads for sugar-filled cereals, canned pasta and other less healthy foods. Overall, however, it’s a landmark step, she said.
“This puts Disney ahead of the pack of media outlets and should be a wake-up call to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network to do the same,” said Wootan, whose organization has lobbied for better nutrition standards for food eaten by children.
Wootan said the announcement is a “game changer” because it is the first time “a major media company is admitting they have responsibility for how they talk to children. In the past, the media companies were pretty much just pointing the finger at food companies.”
Time Warner Inc’s Cartoon Network said it adopted its own guidelines in 2007 but did not offer any details. Viacom Inc’s Nickelodeon had no immediate comment.
Iger, who spoke to reporters after the event flanked by top regulators from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, said Disney’s action could sidestep the need for political action.
“If everyone does their small part, together we can create huge change without having the government step in to directly regulate or legislate our efforts,” he said.
Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and a registered dietician, said Disney’s voluntary effort would barely make a dent in children’s obesity and that the government would have to do more to make any sweeping impact.
“I would really love to see a company take a huge step and say ‘We’re done advertising anything that’s not a whole food - a fruit, a vegetable, a bean or grain - we’re done advertising that to kids’,” she said.
By Susan Heavey