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Would A Ban on Fast-Food Ads Really Help with Childhood Obesity?

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With childhood obesity rates on the perpetual incline in the U.S., researchers have been attempting to find an effective way to combat this nationwide issue. According to a report from a University of Illinois, advertising bans do work, but an outright ban covering the entire U.S. media market would be the most effective policy tool for reducing fast-food consumption in children.

Kathy Baylis, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics, at the University of Illinois, examined how the ban on junk-food advertising in the Canadian province of Quebec from 1984-1992, impacted fast food purchases.

Baylis and co-author Tirtha Dhar, of the University of British Columbia, compared English-speaking households, who were less likely to be affected by the ban, to French-speaking households to see what the overall percentages would be when it came to less fast food purchases. They found a 13 percent reduction per week in French-speaking households, leading between 11 million and 22 million fewer fast food meals eaten per year, or 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion fewer calories consumed by children.

“Given the nature of Quebec’s media market and demographics, a ban would disproportionately affect French-speaking households, but would not affect similar households in Ontario or household without children in either province,” Baylis said in a statement.

Baylis also states that banning fast-food ads could work effectively in the United States, but the results wouldn’t be as successful if the bans were up to each state, as opposed to them being restricted due to federal regulation.

“What we found is that advertising bans are most effective when children live in an isolated media market, and it’s only because they’re in an isolated media market that they’re getting these effects,” she noted. “If any state on their own decided to do this, it would be problematic.

Baylis also felt the Canadian study being done in the 1980′s and 90′s, directly affects its findings.

“Obviously, the Internet has exploded since then, and computer games have also risen in popularity,” she explained.

“So we don’t know how well a television ban would work when children are spending an increasing amount of time online rather than watching TV. So it would be very hard to enforce an Internet ban, and the only way to tackle it would be how they’re doing it in Quebec, which is to prohibit advertising websites for junk food during cartoons, or even on product packaging in stores,” she said. “But if a 10-year old is searching for “Lucky Charms” on the Internet, that would be hard to police on its own.”

Currently in the U.S., some fast-food companies have voluntarily decided to limit advertising to children, but nothing in the way of harsh regulations have been established or agreed upon.

“Fast food is one of the most highly advertised product categories, but what’s interesting is the amount of discussion around having tighter regulations on advertising directed at children, or when countries look to impose a junk-food advertising ban,” Baylis said.

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