WASHINGTON DC: In the face of increasing clamor over child  obesity in the US – where one in three children are estimated to be overweight – a consumer watchdog reports that food and beverage makers spent $1.6 billion (€1.05bn; £830m) on marketing their products to youngsters during 2006.

The Federal Trade Commission survey, the first of its kind, was compiled using confidential financial data that companies such as Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and McDonald's were legally required to surrender.

The report's findings have come as a surprise to some health advocates, such as the Institute of Medicine, which had estimated food marketing to youngsters to be circa $10bn annually.

They believe advertisers are responsible in no small measure for the obesity epidemic, but the report did not look directly at links between fat children and the messages they see.

The significant discrepancy between actual and estimated expenditure, say FTC officials, is likely due to the institute including marketing to youngsters of non-food products and price promotions and coupons directed at parents.

Commented the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection director Lydia Parnes: "We are really hopeful that this can serve as a baseline for measuring future activity."  

The report surveyed forty-four companies and found that advertising to children between the ages of two and 17 in 2006 comprised 17% of their marketing budgets.

Sodas, restaurant food, and breakfast cereals accounted for 63% of the total spent on marketing to children. Around $870 million was spent on advertising to under twelves.

In addition to hard facts, the FTC report offered guidelines for the food industry, including adoption of "meaningful nutritional standards" and an expansion of the definition of advertising and marketing beyond traditional television and print media.

The report also recommended companies stop all in-school promotions of products that do not meet nutritional standards.

It concluded: "Childhood obesity is a complex problem, with many social and economic contributing factors." But added: "Food and beverage marketers can employ a wide range of strategies" to reverse the trend toward fatter children.

Data sourced from multiple sources: additional content by WARC staff