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A US ban on fast-food advertisements during children’s programming would reduce the number of overweight children (age 3-11) in America by 18%, and would lower the number of overweight adolescents (age 12-18) by 14%, according to a largest-of-its-kind study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and carried out by university economists, measured the number of weekly hours of fast-food advertising messages on American TV viewed by children and found a definitive link between these TV ads and the incidence of childhood obesity.

In addition to proving that fast-food commercials do indeed make children fatter, the research discovered that such ads have a pronounced effect on males than on females.

The study also found that the elimination of tax deductibility tied to advertising would similarly produce declines in childhood obesity, albeit at a smaller rate of five to seven percent. Advertising is considered a business expense and, as such, it can be used to reduce a company’s taxable income, the study said. The authors deduce that, since the corporate income tax rate is 35%, the elimination of the tax deductibility of food advertising costs would be equivalent to increasing the price of advertising by 54%.

Such an action would consequently result in the reduction of fast-food advertising messages by 40% for children, and 33% for adolescents, the authors said.

Though such a ban on fast-food ads would be effective, the authors question whether such a high degree of government involvement – and the costs of implementing such policies – is a practical option.

The only other countries in the world that have banned commercial sponsorship of children’s programs – to date – have been Sweden, Norway and Finland, according to the study.

“We have known for some time that childhood obesity has gripped our culture, but little empirical research has been done that identifies television advertising as a possible cause,” said Shin-Yi Chou, a professor at Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics. “Hopefully, this line of research can lead to a serious discussion about the type of policies that can curb America’s obesity epidemic.”

About childhood obesity: According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has become a major health epidemic in the United States. The CDC estimates that, between 1970 and 1999, the percentage of overweight children age 6-11 more than tripled to 13%. Adolescents between? ages? 12 and 19 also saw a significant increase in obesity, reaching 14%.

An overweight child or adolescent is defined as one having a Body Mass Index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile based on age- and gender-specific growth charts. According to the study, research indicates that there is an 80% chance an overweight adolescent will be an obese adult and that more than 300,000 deaths can be attributed to obesity and weight in the United States every year.

About the study: The study is based on the viewing habits of nearly 13,000 children using data from the 1979 Child-Young Adult National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, both issued by the US Department of Labor. It was co-authored by Chou and fellow economists Inas Rashad of Georgia State University and Michael Grossman of City University of New York Graduate Center. Each of the co-authors is an economist with NBER. It was published last month in the Journal of Law and Eco

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