'No Ad Curbs in Fight Against Obesity,' Vows Govt Medic

19 April 2004

US Surgeon General Dr Richard Carmona, addressing the final session of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' annual management conference in Miami Beach on Friday, appealed to the industry for help in fighting the nation's obesity crisis.

Referring to the problem as "the terror within", Carmona invited agencies' assistance in improving food labeling, educating clients and eschewing misleading infomercials. He told conference that the US government has already enlisted the cooperation of food giants such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, McDonald's and PepsiCo.

Advertising regulatory changes were not on the government's agenda, assured the top doc, eliciting a sigh of relief that could be heard as far afield as Alaska. "The food industry has come along way; we don't want to impede capitalism," he said.

Dr Carmona has clearly majored not only in medicine but also the art of political bobbing and weaving. Asked if marketers are partly to blame for the obesity pandemic he replied: "I don't see it as blame. Who would have thought our society would evolve like that and consumers would be eating that way?"

The government will seek help from major kids' media outlets -- Viacom's MTV and Disney were mentioned -- to promote the concept of healthy eating to children. Carmona revealed the Department of Health and Human Services has already enlisted Sesame Street to provide education on better eating.

On the labeling front, the government is working alongside food marketers to change labels so the public can better understand what's inside the can or package.

"We need to be clear about what the contents are. The trouble with food labeling is that [even] very educated people don't understand [it]," the doc diagnosed. "The informercials contain a lot of spurious information. We have a health illiterate society."

According to Carmona, 400,000 Americans a year die from obesity-related disease, while smoking-related disease kills 450,000. The media had initially been reluctant to cover the problem, he claimed, because of the focus on terrorism, homeland security and the war on Iraq.

Winding-up with a rhetorical question, the top doc pronounced: "This is the terror within. We lose 400,000 people a year and what are we doing about it?"

Data sourced from: AdAge.com; additional content by WARC staff