By Linda Tishler Levinson
One in four Latino third-graders are considered obese, according to state figures. However, the problem may not start at the fridge, but rather with what young Latinos are exposed to on television, the radio and online.
Targeted marketing could be to blame for Latino children posting some of the highest obesity rates in Connecticut. According to local experts, they are viewed as particularly vulnerable to junk food marketing.
“In my opinion, Spanish-speaking children are more heavily targeted by junk foods, desserts and sugar-sweetened beverage ads because their community is very disempowered and does not have the means to advocate for changes in these unhealthy marketing practices that have been seriously questioned by groups that have a higher social position in the country,” said Rafael Perez-Escamilla Ph.D., former Director at UConn’s Center for Eliminating Health Disparities Among Latinos and currently a Professor at the Yale School of Public Health.
According to Perez-Escamilla, the food industry in the U.S. “self-regulates” itself when it comes to deciding intensity and content of advertisements targeting children. Spanish-speaking children are one of the most vulnerable groups, he said, claiming that they are bombarded with ads for unhealthy foods “simply because they can without having to face major consequences in the court of public opinion.”
Dr. Elsie Taveras, chief of general pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, also is concerned about cultural factors that leave children at higher risk for obesity.
In a 2010 study she led while with Boston Children’s Hospital, demonstrated that nearly all known early-life risk factors are more common among black and Hispanic children. These factors include low rates of breastfeeding, lack of sleep and high consumption of fast foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. The long-term stud, Project Viva, followed more than 1,000 children, from early pregnancy to age 7, whose mothers had enrolled in a long-term study called Project Viva.
“We know that, already by the age of 2, black and Hispanic children have close to double the rate of obesity of white children in the U.S.,” Taveras said. “Our finding that most of these racial/ethnic differences can be explained by behavioral risk factors indicates that designing and implementing interventions to reduce those risk factors during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood could help eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in childhood obesity.”
The study found that the risk factors for childhood obesity, which were more prevalent among black and Hispanic children, included rapid infant weight gain, non-exclusive breastfeeding, introduction of solid foods before 4 months of age, sleeping less than 12 hours a day, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, eating fast food frequently and the presence of a television in the bedroom
“Marketing of junk foods, desserts and unhealthy beverages is so effective at increasing the consumption of these product among children that the food industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars doing so every year,” he said.
Because junk foods are calorie dense and sugar-sweetened, the body is more prone to store them as fat. High consumption of these foods has been scientifically linked to the risk of childhood obesity.
“Needless to say, this obesity risk developed early in life subsequently translates into serious chronic diseases later on in life including heart problems, diabetes and some types of cancers,” Perez-Escamilla said.
A recent study at the University of Arizona suggests a link between childhood obesity among Latinos and junk food advertising. Another study from the University of Arizona also linked junk food marketing and childhood obesity in Latinos. The study showed that 84 percent of advertisements during Spanish-language children’s television programming were for junk food, according to a report by NBC Latino.
Politicians around the country have taken steps to cut down on young Latinos’ exposure to these marketing strategies.
In response to the alarming rates of childhood obesity, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., along with Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent a letter to Nickelodeon and its parent company Viacom on June 10 asking that the network prohibit advertisements that market unhealthy food to children.
They cited a 2010 report by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity stating that Nickelodeon aired a quarter of the food advertisements that are viewed by children under 12. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also found that 69 percent of foods advertised on Nickelodeon were of poor nutritional quality, including fast foods, sugary cereals and sweet snacks.
The senators noted that last year the Walt Disney Corporation announced it would no longer accept advertisements for unhealthy foods on television, radio and websites directed at children.
Blumenthal told CTLatinoNews.com that he is particularly concerned about the effects junk food advertising has on Latino children.
“I am troubled by recent reports that Latino youth may be exposed to even more unhealthy food advertisements on Spanish-language programming. This is particularly disturbing, since Latino youth also face disproportionately high levels of obesity. There are many roots to the problem, but junk food marketing that targets children plays a role and it needs to end for all children,” Blumenthal said.
Reps from Nickelodeon disagreed, saying that the company has not been responsible in its advertising aimed at children.
“No entertainment brand has worked as comprehensively and with more organizations dedicated to fighting childhood obesity over the past decade than Nickelodeon,” said Thamar Romero, manager of corporate communications for the Nickelodeon Group.
Romero said Nickelodeon has dedicated 10 percent of its airtime to health and wellness messaging and has partnered with Let’s Move, The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and professional sports leagues. He added that Nickelodeon offers grant programs for school physical education and recreation efforts in local communities, among several other efforts to promote healthy living.
“We have proven our commitment over and over. Less than 20 percent of our advertising comes from the food category, and the overwhelming majority of those advertisers have already signed on to the CFBAI pledge,” he said. “We will continue to work with them and other marketers who strive to make meaningful progress on this issue.”