Disney announced today that it will eliminate junk food advertising from its television, radio, and online programming geared toward children under the age of 12. Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, along with First lady Michelle Obama, made the announcement at a press conference held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Disney will also introduce the “Mickey Check”, a label that will be attached to healthy foods at the grocery store, giving them Mickey’s seal of approval.
Obama called the move a “game changer” in the fight against childhood obesity.
The new guidelines will begin in 2015 in order to honor existing contracts and allow companies time to create healthier options.
Disney started offering healthier food options at its theme parks six years ago (for example, making carrots and low-fat milk a default addition to kids meals). It also no longer markets its movies with McDonalds promotions, such as Happy Meal figurines.
Some criticize the move as a merely symbolic step that will not make much of an impact in children’s health. Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and a registered dietician, said, “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’.”
Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, agreed, telling the LA Times, “Elimination of junk-food advertisements will not make television viewing a physically healthy activity, but elimination of advertisements will substantially reduce the harm of television viewing in childhood.”
Disney CEO Iger, however, focused on the power of television to influence children’s choices. “The emotional connection kids have to our characters and stories gives us a unique opportunity to continue to inspire and encourage them to lead healthier lives.”
As for other children’s networks, the LA Times reported that Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network adopted policies in 2007 that limits the use of their characters to promoting foods that meet nutritional guidelines developed by the food industry. That industry, however, has successfully fought government regulation of its advertising to children. According to the Yale-Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, “numerous omissions and loopholes in industry self-regulatory pledges may provide more public relations benefit to the industry than real health benefits to young people.”
Almost one-third of children are overweight or obese in the United States, and the percentage of adolescents who were pre-diabetic or had Type 2 diabetes nearly tripled between 1999 and 2008. In the midst of these kinds of numbers, in 2006 the American Food Industry spent over $1.6 billion producing foods for children that were high in sugar and calories but low in nutritional value.