By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007
President Bush yesterday added his voice to the growing debate over childhood obesity, as he met at the White House with representatives of some of the companies considered responsible for aggravating the problem and urged them to stress the importance of healthful eating and physical fitness in their marketing campaigns.
Among those at the morning meeting in the White House Roosevelt Room were the president of McDonald's USA, purveyor of the Happy Meal; a senior executive of Kraft Foods, which sells macaroni and cheese in the shapes of popular children's characters; and the chief executive of PepsiCo., maker of soft drinks and Doritos, among other products.
"Childhood obesity is a costly problem for the country," Bush said before starting the private meeting, which also included first lady Laura Bush. "We believe it is necessary to come up with a coherent strategy to help folks all throughout our country cope with the issue."
As described by those present, the meeting was cordial and the president signaled no intent to pursue more aggressive policies favored by some consumer groups, such as banning the marketing of junk food to children or requiring more detailed nutritional labeling. Bush told the executives that it is an individual's responsibility to maintain a healthful diet, not the government's. The meeting also included executives of entertainment companies involved with marketing to children.
Peggy Conlon, president of the Advertising Council, which has been working with the government on public service campaign on childhood obesity, said the president is very interested in the efforts some of the companies have been making to offer more healthful choices to Americans. McDonald's, for instance, has been adding salads and other alternative products to its menu and giving people the option of substituting apple slices for french fries in Happy Meals.
"He was curious," Conlon said of Bush. "They talked a lot about their movement to healthier product choices."
The group also played for the president a public service announcement developed by Dreamworks and the Ad Council featuring the characters from the hit movie "Shrek" urging kids to get outside and play.
Childhood obesity has been identified by public health advocates as a serious and growing problem, with roughly 15 to 18 percent of children and teenagers considered overweight, according to government data. A 2005 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that marketing practices from the food and beverage industry is "a direct threat to the health prospects of the next generation."
Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler, who crusaded against the tobacco industry, applauded the president's initiative to discuss the issue but said: "That still leaves the question of what to do. Talking about it is a first step. It is a very large public health challenge, the consequences of which we have only begun to understand. In some ways we have all been AWOL on this issue, including this administration."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was more skeptical. "It is a feel-good event for a beleaguered White House, and it's great for some of the companies that have been major contributors to childhood obesity." But he added: "The government needs to put some muscle into [the campaign] and maybe step on some toes."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.