BERKELEY, California: Concerned at current methods of advertising food to kids - viral messages via online social networks, for example - the Public Health Institute in Berkeley has published a new report by its Media Studies Group.

Urging lawmakers to restrict junk food advertising to kids online (an increasingly widespread practice over the past two years), the report will be presented to members of Congress and has already been shown to their counterparts in the European Union.

Complains report co-author Kathryn Montgomery, an  American University communications professor: "With social networking, marketers are getting the kids to create the ads and share them with their friends. It is incredibly sticky and it is viral. Regulators need to understand that."

Montgomery, and many like her, are increasingly worried that food companies are bombarding kids with ads for non-nutritious foods, thereby fueling the child obesity epidemic.

She and co-author Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, urge that regulators restrict the number of ads for unhealthy snacks on kids' websites. They also advocate a ban on advertising junk food to under-twelves.

Also on their agenda is the creation of industry-wide standards as to what is - and is not - healthier snack food, preferably in accord with existing guidelines on reducing childhood obesity released in 2005 by the US National Academies' Institute of Medicine.

Meantime, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have upped by a factor of five their estimate of the proportion of obese children below the age of twelve – indicating that 19% of kids between 6-11 are now overweight.

But food marketers insist the industry is successfully policing itself and that government intervention is not required.

McDonald's has already promised it will advertise to kids only those foods that comply with guidelines set in 2005 by the US Department of Agriculture.

While at websites where more than 35% of total visitors are under 12, Kraft says it promotes only products that meet higher nutrition standards.

The FTC does not favor governmental intervention. Says its associate director for advertising practices Mary Engle: "We think that companies can act on a self-regulatory basis much more quickly than the government can."

Data sourced from Business Week (online); additional content by WARC staff