The National Nanny Is Back with a Vengeance

During the bleak days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the Federal Trade Commission initiated rulemaking proceedings aimed at regulating the content of television ads aired Saturday mornings, times when many children were watching cartoons. Spearheaded by then-chairman Michael Pertschuk, the FTC was worried about the impact on young, unformed minds of commercials touting sugary ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, such as Count Chocula®, Fruit Loops® and Cap’n Crunch®. A majority of the commissioners reasoned that kids seeing such ads would immediately demand that their mothers rush out to the grocery store to buy products containing more sweetening ingredients, artificial colors and artificial flavors than nutritious whole grains.

Toward the end of the unenlightened 1970s, when nearly everyone wore god-awful clothes and had bad hair days every day, the public’s reaction to news of the FTC’s “kid-vid” rulemaking initiative was both swift and caustic. Soon tagged with the moniker “National Nanny” and excoriated in many media outlets for presuming to tell parents what breakfast cereals they should allow their children to eat, the Commission eventually drew in its horns.

But bad ideas never die and they don’t fade away. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Janet Adamy, in a story published on April 29th, the Obama administration is poised to ask (read: demand that) “food makers … sharply limit any advertising to children and teens of foods high in sodium, saturated fat and added sugars.”

Riding the wave of a so-called obesity epidemic, created artificially in large part following the public health profession’s adoption of the Body Weight Index (BMI) as a way of identifying people who are “overweight”, “obese” or “extremely (morbidly) obese”. Those categories include many professional athletes because the BMI does not distinguish between fat mass and muscle mass.

Nevertheless, marching to the tune of First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made childhood obesity her “signature cause”, food manufacturers would be required, by 2016, to reallocate their marketing budgets in ways that make a “meaningful contribution” to promoting healthful dietary choices by children between 2 and 17 years of age. In the event that the new advertising messages fail to have the desired impact on behavior, the same food manufacturers also will be required to change their products’ recipes so as to limit the amounts of added sodium, sugars and saturated fats.

A key difference between the Carter era and now is that public healthcare is much more socialized and taxpayers accordingly pick up more of the tab. As Obamacare moves forward, governmental pressure on everyone, young and old alike, to adopt healthy diets and lifestyles will become ever more intrusive under the guise of cost control.

“It’s for the welfare of (fat) children”, or so the story goes. Who could object to federal policies that improve the diets and, hence, future health outcomes for young people? But adults are in the crosshairs, too. If you allow your children to sit next to you in front of a televised baseball or football game, ads for sports drinks and soft drinks may start encouraging you to get off the couch and head for the gym.

Big Brother is watching, and so is Big Sister.

William F. Shughart II is Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.
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