The National Bureau of Economic Research is out with a new working paper on what it says is a link between fast-food advertising and youth obesity. The study, by Michael Grossman of the City University of New York, Roy Wada of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University, found that "on average, youths view approximately half an hour per week of fast-food advertising." They write:
we conclude that exposure to fast-food restaurant advertising on television causes statistically significant increases in the body mass index of youths and on the probability that they are obese. ...A complete ban on these advertisements would reduce the number of obese youths by 14 percent. Another policy option alternative to banning such advertising on television could be the elimination of the tax deductibility of food advertising costs. While such a policy would still leave a considerable number of youth exposed to fast-food advertising on television, it may still result in non-trivial reductions in obesity
The proposal on the tax deductibility of food advertising costs raises some interesting policy questions. What if the food being advertised is something that the government wants you to eat — say, skim milk, or broccoli, or organic almonds? What about ads for beer? Light beer? Bottled water? It wouldn't seem reasonable that some broccoli grower or distributor couldn't advertise, or a supermarket couldn't advertise its broccoli specials, but wide-screen television manufacturers and movie producers can advertise all they want. Which causes more obesity, excess consumption of broccoli and bottled water or too much time sitting in front of screens?
I wouldn't be surprised to see someone suggest some government office that rates every product being advertised for its potential effect on your weight, and then awards tax deductions that are carefully calibrated to calorie counts.
The political potency of the childhood obesity issue is demonstrated by Michelle Obama's choice of it as her own cause as First Lady. This NBER study is worth a look because, just like Mayor Bloomberg's soda tax or cup-size limit, it illuminates the leading edges of the public policy debate on the issue.