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Let's junk kids' TV junk food ads

Anybody who takes a child to the grocery store gets the power of TV marketing.

Saw it on the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon? Gotta have it.

I can tuck something new and healthy into my kids' lunchboxes, but they don't consider it cool unless they've seen it in a TV ad. I try to give them a shot of healthy skepticism every time I see ads for fast food, candy and unhealthy snacks. I mock ad gimmicks, rolling my eyes with exaggeration at all the tomfoolery so they get the "isn't-this-nonsense?" message and, hopefully, someday subscribe to it. You got it, honey, Tricks are for kids.

But these are the odds: mom vs. Tony the Tiger, the Burger King king, the Lucky Charms leprechaun, Captain Crunch, the latest McDonald's Happy Meal toy, the Fanta Girls, a "fruity" leather that leaves a tattoo on the tongue, and a new sour candy appropriately called "Toxic Waste," not to mention all of the latest cartoon hero junk food peddlers.

Even Shrek has his own cereal now (16 grams of sugar, no fiber). Nothing like being undermined by a green ogre with a fake Scottish accent.

It's time to crack down on junk food TV ads, just like we did for cigarette ads and other products deemed a public health risk. Yeah, I know all about individual responsibility. Sure, parents can always say "no" when their kids ask for such crap or simply turn off the TV. But this isn't a problem just for lame parents.

Not when even eat-right guru/bestselling author Michael Pollan is caught in a Yabba Dabba Don't moment reaching for the Fruity Pebbles for his own kid, as he admitted this past weekend in

The Miami Herald

.

Just as we don't allow certain subjects to be shown or advertised during "family viewing" time, junk food should not appear on TV stations that target young kids or on networks during the early morning or evening, when sex and violence is (supposedly) limited, too.

I'm the last person to call for censorship. But I also believe that smart consumerism is a skill that's taught, not something you're born with. We need to train our kids to spot insincere and deceptive marketing techniques (No sweetie, Fruit Loops is not fruit. No, Chester the Cheetah is not your friend and Cheetos don't qualify as a cheese-dairy product.) That takes time. And it's not a lesson that comes easily to a three-year-old, especially when such ads are sandwiched in between American Dragon and Jimmy Neutron.

Junk food ads account for two-thirds of televised food ads shown when children are likely to be watching, according to a new study of 11 countries. Researchers found that junk food ads mainly featuring fast food, confectionery and high-fat dairy foods increased during times young people were most likely to be watching. Germany and the United States led the way at 90 percent.

If you're looking for a cause-and-effect, look no further than a study published last year in the Journal of Law and Economics. The report estimates banning junk food ads from children's TV would reduce the number of overweight kids in the United States by 18 percent. Researchers linked obesity rates to the amount of time spent viewing fast-food ads, finding that viewing more of the commercials raises the risk of obesity in children.

Last year, the United Kingdom became the first industrialized nation to ban TV ads that encourage young children to consume junk food.

What are we waiting for?

It's been more than a year since McDonald's, Coca-Cola, General Mills and other major food and drink makers agreed to adopt new voluntary rules for advertising, saying they'd devote at least half their ads directed at children to promote healthier diets and lifestyles. Sorry guys, it's not working. Self-regulation for these companies is a lot like asking a 6-year-old to control himself when faced with the toddler-eye-level wall of candy at every store's checkout line.

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