It has been five years since the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity — a 2006 report that called on the food and beverage industries to combat the childhood obesity epidemic by improving children’s food marketing. Since 2008, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has held three research roundtables to assess progress in meeting the goals of the report and to bring researchers, advocates, and government oversight bodies together to address ongoing concerns about food marketing and its role in the childhood obesity crisis.

The third Policy Research Roundtable on Food Marketing to Children and Youth, held April 2011, was cosponsored by RWJF and the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR). The Roundtable marked an important inflection point in the effort to identify, evaluate, and extend research, policies, and practices needed to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing. Roundtable participants included researchers from marketing, media, public health, and nutrition, as well as advocates, advocacy research funders, federal agencies, and policy makers concerned with food marketing to children and youth.

The meeting had three overarching aims:

  1. Assess progress on the 2006 IOM committee recommendations
  2. Identify and discuss those policy research priorities with high
potential to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing and to help reduce the prevalence and disparities in childhood obesity rates
  3. Propose and discuss ways to continue and enhance collaboration and
networking among researchers, policy makers, and advocates over the next several years

Participants pulled together lessons for the future from what has been and has not been accomplished since the IOM report, looked across the spectrum of current cutting-edge research relevant to policy makers and advocates, and solicited research and policy action priorities for the next 2-5 years. In addition, participants outlined practical strategies for continuing the networking and research monitoring that had begun in past Roundtables, including regular conference calls and webinars.

Below are the key conclusions from the Roundtable presentations and discussions.

  • Food marketing to children and adolescents is, and must remain, a priority in successful efforts to speed childhood obesity prevention.
  • Despite the growth of digital, integrated, and targeted marketing, marketers are on the defensive, and there are some signs that they are starting to change, as they face mounting pressure from public health leaders, researchers, advocates, and the public. Much more effort is needed to build public and policy maker demand for evidence-based childhood obesity prevention efforts.
  • Effective networks have begun to be established among researchers, advocates, and public health experts. A crucial priority going forward is to take well-coordinated strategic approaches to combat the policy and environmental drivers of childhood obesity, including:
    • Digital and integrated marketing, including invasion of privacy of children and adolescents
    • Racial/ethnic targeted marketing
    • Monitoring and tracking of marketing reach, pervasiveness, and impact, using measures beyond dollar expenditures
    • Efforts to enrage and engage parents, youth, and key change agents to take action to reduce unhealthy food marketing to children
    • Broader support and demand from parents and youths themselves to reduce and regulate children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing
    • Close reciprocal ties between advocates/change agents and researchers/research funders to define and fund actionable research
    • A strong communications effort to frame and disseminate research results for maximum public health benefit
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