MONTPELIER — Attorney General Bill Sorrell looks to have identified the next target in his war on childhood obesity.
After leading the charge in recent years for a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, Sorrell on Wednesday trained his crosshairs on the fast food industry. Specifically, Sorrell said he wants to scrutinize — and possibly find new ways to regulate –— advertising geared toward young children.
“The food industry marketing to kids these non-nutritious, high-sugar and fat content fast-food meals is playing a part in the obesity problems we face,” Sorrell said. “And we’ve got to attend to that either through existing laws and policies, or with new ones to come.”
Sorrell said it’s still too early to say what form legal or regulatory intervention might take. He’ll attend a conference next month at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, where he and fellow attorneys general from across the country will focus on “the current state of food industry marketing to kids.”
“We’ll examine labeling, advertisements and the like, and look at what, under existing authority, we might be able to do, and how we might be in a position to espouse change within our state legislatures,” Sorrell said.
It won’t be Sorrell’s first stab at pushing for policy initiatives aimed at curbing obesity rates. A year-long study on obesity conducted by his office in 2010 culminated with the publication of a report that included dozens of policy recommendations, a tax on soda among them.
Sorrell said Wednesday that the House Committee on Health Care’s adoption last month of a bill that included the soda tax shows the effectiveness of his advocacy, and the severity of the problem he’s trying to address.
“Smoking, I believe, is still the greatest avoidable public health problem we face in this country today,” Sorrell said. “But unless the curve gets bent, it’s likely to be overtaken by obesity and very high diabetes rates.”
Sorrell on Wednesday introduced to the House Committee on Health Care a professor of pediatrics from Dartmouth College who recently conducted a study on fast food advertising geared toward children.
Dr. James Sargent said the use of toys and popular movie characters to build brand loyalty among children as young as 2 amounts to the kind of “deceptive advertising” that lawmakers have a public interest in restricting.
“It’s really true, from my perspective as a pediatrician, that any advertising aimed at children under 12 is unfair, because children are developmentally unable to understand the message,” Sargent said.
Sargent said Sweden has strict laws against advertisements geared toward young children.
“We don’t allow companies to employ children under 12,” Sargent said to lawmakers. “So should we consider what we want to do about their ability to deliver persuasive messages?”
Assistant Attorney General Wendy Morgan said attempts to restrict commercial speech are always legally challenging.
“It would be fair to say we’ve just begun to think about this,” Morgan said. “We do know there are serious First Amendment concerns.”
Rep. Mike Fisher, a Lincoln Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Health Care, said he’s unsure what, if anything, lawmakers can do to more tightly regulate the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to boost consumption of unhealthy foods.
But he said lawmakers, and the constituents they represent, have a financial interest in finding ways to improve Vermonters’ diets.
“We often recognize that much of the demand for health care has to do with behaviors that do not necessarily have anything to do with the health care delivery system,” Fisher said. “We understand it’s those behaviors that lead to the bad outcomes that are a main, or the main cause of health care spending.”
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