pringlesThe industry talks a good game, but keeps churning out the same old junk. It’s no mystery that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign is built on industry cooperation. It’s also true that many experts are skeptical of the wisdom behind it; nutritionist Marion Nestle has been particularly critical both of the government’s food industry “health” partnerships as well as of the administration’s unwillingness to fight the industry’s relentless media advertising.

I tend to agree. While the Let’s Move initiative is full of worthy proposals, especially in the area of addressing food deserts and promoting farm-to-city initiatives, the idea of leaving restrictions on junk food television advertising — not to mention junk food taxes — out of the equation seems to base the pitch just a bit too much as an appeal to our better angels. It’s hard to see public service announcements and educational campaigns counteracting those hundreds of millions of dollars work of junk food ads Americans of all ages submit to every time they turn on their televisions.

And it certainly doesn’t help when star athletes, some of whom will no doubt participate in Let’s Move, continue to flack for junk food (from Petyon and Eli Manning and Oreos to Derek Jeter and Gatorade*). Meanwhile, anyone who’s been watching the Olympics knows that NBC’s coverage of this ultimate athletic event has been awash in ads for soda and other junk food. Even the Olympians themselves are in on the act — Alternet noted that snowboarder Brad Martin is featured prominently in a McDonald’s ad shown repeatedly during the Olympics.

Past attempts to restrict food-related advertising have failed, although our experience with restrictions on tobacco and liquor advertising makes clear the potential positive effect. There is, however, surprisingly little science behind proposals to restrict food ads. In fact, a recent study out of UCLA which claimed to find a connection between commercials and obesity, though it got a fair amount of attention, merely hinted at the relationship. The researchers used time-use diaries from 1997 and 2002, which included BMI data for parents and children who participated, to tease out a relationship between obesity and specific television viewing patterns.

Through statistical analysis of the data, the researchers concluded that there was an association between watching commercial broadcast television and increased BMI. The researchers reasoned that this was due to the high number of food ads. But their only measure was time spent watching television and not exposure to particular ads. Their conclusion is in effect, and sad to say, a big time assumption.

Further, because of the nature of the underlying data, they were unable to control for the income level of participants, which turns out to be a huge weakness in their analysis. This is because they also looked at the effect on BMI of watching commercial-free videos or DVDs and public television to try and impute the role of ads in obesity. Unfortunately, commercial-free television viewing habits (not to mention DVD ownership, especially ten years ago when the data were collected) correlates very highly with income. Income, in turn, correlates strongly with obesity: the poorer you are the more likely you are to be obese. As a result, it’s hard to know if their results tell us anything new.

This isn’t to say that I don’t believe in the connection between exposure to ads and obesity. It’s rather to observe that weak science won’t help convince anyone and tends to provide ammunition to the other side.

So color me pleased when I ran across this:

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Health Research and Policy have received a $2.2 million federal grant to determine whether or not TV food advertising affects children’s diet, physical activity and weight.

The four-year project, funded by the National Cancer Institute, is unique because it will separate out the effect of food advertising from the amount of time that children watch TV.

“A number of studies have shown that increased TV watching is associated with higher weight outcomes among kids, but they haven’t been able to determine whether or not this is directly due to the type of ads children see,” said Lisa Powell, research professor of economics at UIC and lead scientist on the study.

…The research, Powell said, can provide important information for policymakers and public health advocates about the potential effectiveness of regulating television food advertising to children and using TV media campaigns as policy tools for improving these health outcomes.

Previous research conducted by Powell and her colleagues showed that 98 percent of food-product ads viewed by children ages 2 to 11, and 89 percent of those viewed by adolescents ages 12 to 17, were for foods high in fat, sugar or sodium.

The current study is the first to combine food, beverage and restaurant ad ratings and nutritional data with individual data on obesity to analyze the relationship between product exposure, nutritional content of ad exposure, and food consumption, diet quality and obesity, according to the researchers.

The study will also examine the relationship between exposure to health promotion ads — those that encourage eating fruits and vegetables or getting regular physical activity — and individual behaviors related to diet, activity and weight outcomes.

This study, it bears repeating, is government funded — the National Cancer Institute is an arm of the NIH. So, while the Let’s Move initiative very publicly launches with the food industry as a willing partner, the government is quietly funding research that might finally kick the legs out from industry’s arguments against more vigorous government regulation. It might also tell us if those public service announcements do any good as well.

The only shame is that we have to wait for another four years and for President Obama’s re-election, to get the study results and perhaps government action. For those awaiting truly dramatic, effective action on reducing Americans’ massive junk food consumption rates, Let’s Move threatens to remain Let’s Hope.