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Nickelodeon Knocked For Pitching Junk Food to Kids

Health Groups Urge Nick to Match Disney Efforts & Set Nutrition Standards


Should Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants really be hawking junk food to young children? That's the question raised by more than 55 health groups and 30 prominent nutritionists, physicians, and other experts, who today called on Nickelodeon and parent company Viacom to implement strong nutrition standards for the foods marketed to kids on Viacom's various channels and that bear images of its characters.

The company has taken some small steps in the right direction, including a vague policy to limit the licensing of Nick characters to healthier food products. However, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer are still used to promote unhealthy foods like imitation fruit snacks, Popsicles, PEZ candy, Cheese Nips crackers, and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Nickelodeon, NickToons, and Nick Jr. recently have advertised unhealthy foods like Cocoa Puffs, Air Heads candies, Chuck E. Cheese's, and Fruit Roll-Ups.

Nickelodeon lags behind the Walt Disney Company, which earlier this year announced new nutrition standards that it is expected to apply to all its marketing.

"We appreciate Nickelodeon's efforts to promote healthy lifestyles to children," wrote the groups and experts in a letter to Viacom Inc. president and CEO Philippe Dauman and Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami. "However, such efforts are insufficient given the magnitude of the problem. Your PSAs, philanthropic activities, and partnerships with children's groups do not counterbalance the effect of Nickelodeon's core business and children's exposure to food marketing. The mix of Nickelodeon's marketing remains out of balance, doing more to promote unhealthy than healthy eating."

The letter was coordinated by a coalition called the Food Marketing Workgroup. Led by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and Berkeley Media Studies Group, the coalition includes the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, Environmental Working Group, and others.

"Nickelodeon prides itself on responsible programming for kids, but how can a program be responsible, if the ads during that program are irresponsible?" asked CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Feeding kids healthfully is tough enough without Nickelodeon letting its programming and characters be used to market foods that promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems in children."

The health groups urged Viacom to join the Council for Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory group that promotes a baseline set of standards for food marketing to young children. The company could go even farther by implementing the food marketing guidelines proposed by the Interagency Working Group, a federal task force that in 2011 proposed draft non-binding standards.

The National Academies' Institute of Medicine (IOM) has concluded that marketing puts children's health at risk. Most foods marketed to children are unhealthy, according to CSPI, and food marketing affects children's food preferences, food choices, diets, and health.

"It's not just a matter of parents saying 'no.' Junk food marketing shapes what children are willing to eat, not only at home but also at school, afterschool programs, and daycare. It causes battles over breakfast, conflicts when shopping, and can be down-right embarrassing when kids throw a tantrum in a restaurant or grocery store," said Wootan. "Nick should stop turning our kids against us and deliberating making parents' job harder."

Since 1971, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been a strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science.