According to the center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), officials at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington are "merely observing" the debate over junk-food marketing aimed at kids. In contrast, it says, the UK has implemented new rules that will prohibit junk-food marketers from advertising on programming aimed at kids under 16.
"A serious approach to childhood obesity would not allow corporations to appeal directly to children and convince them to eat foods that harm their health-period," said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.
The group says that new voluntary ad restrictions announced this month in the US are "inadequate".
The initiative introduced in recent weeks by the US Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) involves a voluntary self-regulation program, which would impose new requirements on product advertising to kids under 12.
The initiative requires that food and beverage products are not advertised in elementary schools, that food companies do not engage in product placement in editorial and entertainment content, and that they reduce the use of licensed characters for promoting products that do not meet certain nutritional criteria.
However, according to the CSPI, these voluntary measures are "promulgated by advertising- and food-industry groups whose main goals are to forestall serious government action and to generally make life easier for advertisers."
"Unfortunately the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are also more oriented to protecting business than helping parents and protecting children," it said.
The consumer group flagged up new rules introduced in the UK as a more effective comparison.
The UK's advertising watchdog, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), announced last week that it would impose a total ban on high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) food and drink advertisements of particular appeal to children under the age of 16, broadcast at any time of day or night on any channel. The announcement of the new restrictions on food and soft drink advertising to children on TV is the culmination of a three-year debate on the role advertising plays in establishing eating habits.
Under Ofcom's proposals, restrictions will be targeted at food and drink products rated as HFSS according to the Nutrient Profiling scheme developed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Food or drink products which are below FSA thresholds may be advertised without scheduling restrictions, providing an incentive for some manufacturers to reformulate existing products as well as to develop new products which are low in fat, salt and sugar.
But in the UK, many members of the food industry consider this profiling scheme to be highly arbitrary, rendering the establishment of a feasible and fair ban on junk food advertising impossible.
And although industry groups such as the Advertising Association and the Food and Drink Federation have claimed that the new rules go well beyond creating more protection for primary school aged children, consumer groups have clearly gone the other way. Which? for example has called Ofcom's proposals a 'public health fudge', and demanded a 9pm watershed ban.
But the US group CSPI says that this effort is far better than the "paltry voluntary" self-regulatory approaches underway in the United States.
"No matter what metrics are applied to measure it, self-regulation of food marketing aimed at children is a proven flop. But the Bush Administration's strategy is just to clap louder and hope that it helps," Jacobson said.
The new US Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative is currently backed by ten of the nation's largest food and beverage companies: Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Unilever.