Most food and drink advertising to children promotes unhealthy choices, and the government should step in if the industry fails to improve the situation, an experts report said Tuesday.
"There is strong evidence that television advertising influences the diets of children" said Dr. Michael McGinnis, a senior scholar at the Institute of Medicine, which conducted the review.
Studies also suggest marketing can lead to higher rates of body fat, though more evidence is needed, said the institute, an independent, nonprofit body that advises the government.
The group called for a nationwide campaign to educate families about healthy foods, for national standards for food offered at schools, and for expanded industry guidelines to monitor the Internet and other nontraditional ad venues.
If industry efforts fail, Congress should force companies to advertise healthier choices, it said. US officials should monitor progress and update lawmakers in two years.
"We think that the issues confronting the health and well being of America's children, particularly with respect to childhood obesity...require an 'all hands on deck' effort," McGinnis told reporters.
Food and beverage industry groups have rejected the idea of government restrictions, saying consumers should make their own choices.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said many of its members have already improved food labels and promoted healthier lifestyles. But the industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom rejected the study's findings, saying a lack of exercise, not food, was to blame for rising obesity.
Last year, the food and beverage industry spent about $11 billion in advertising, including $5 billion on television commercials, mostly for high-calorie products with little nutritional value.
Promotions led children ages 2 to 11 to ask for certain products, and kids aged 4 and younger could not tell the difference between television advertisements and programming, the report said. Those 8 and younger did not understand that commercials are meant to persuade.
The impact on teenagers was less clear, because too little research has been done, the report found.
Experts also found companies were increasingly targeting children through the Internet, product placement, and other activities.
To reach its conclusions the team of media and health experts reviewed 123 published studies and industry information at a time when more Americans of all ages are getting fatter.
About 9 million US children and teenagers, or about 16 percent, are obese compared with 5 percent in the 1960s. The number of young people with type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity, also is on the rise.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who pushed legislation requiring the $1 million study, said the "report proves that the onslaught of junk-food marketing is endangering the health of our children."
Consumer groups welcomed the findings, but some expressed doubts about whether companies would risk profit by curbing junk-food ads. Others, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called on Congress to act immediately.