Food Marketing Bans Take a Beating

We’re not the only ones pleased by a federal judge’s dismissal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) lawsuit over toys in kids’ meals.

We said from the beginning that the idea that toys make kids fat was frivolous, and not surprisingly, we have company in that view. One columnist for an Arizona paper compares kids’ meal toys to the little trinkets in Cracker Jack packages, noting, “I ate the Cracker Jack treat because I liked it, not because it had a toy in it.” (That distinction may not matter to CSPI: They have a history of attacking foods people admit to liking.)

And in today’s Wall Street Journal, George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki presents more evidence that activists who want to ban food marketing to kids are barking up the wrong tree. He offers a finding that few “public health” groups consider: Most advertising is aimed at turning consumers of one product to a similar product, like one soft drink brand to another.

Ads are not primarily creating new soft-drink drinkers or snack eaters. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that restricting advertising doesn’t make people stop drinking soda or eating snacks. Just ask Sweden and Quebec, which have obesity rates comparable to similar countries despite enacting ad bans.

We can think of other reasons why advertising bans fail to make people skinny. For one thing, ad bans don’t make kids actually get off the couch (that’s the “calories out” side of the weight-gain equation). Also, bans on advertising to kids forget that parents ultimately decide what their kids eat. (What a novel idea.)

Additionally, marketing bans have a chilling effect on the First Amendment. It’s no surprise that the recent federal proposals are called “voluntary,” but Zywicki notes that federal regulators have promised identical regulations if there aren’t volunteers. And if that day comes, activists will be happy to serve as the government’s Food Thought Police.

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