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Harkin, Blumenthal Introduce Bill to End Federal Tax Subsidy for Unhealthy Food, Beverage Marketing to Children

WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) today introduced the Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act of 2014, legislation that would end the federal tax subsidy for unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children. The legislation requires that money generated by the elimination of the tax subsidy be used to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides fresh fruit or vegetable snacks to elementary school students in low-income schools. Harkin created the program in 2002. According to a study published in the Journal of Law and Economics and funded by the National Institutes of Health, the elimination of the tax subsidy could reduce the rates of childhood obesity by five to seven percent.

“Our nation is facing a childhood obesity crisis that demands our urgent attention, and one effective way of combating this epidemic is to ensure that our children are not confronted by persistent advertising from soda, snack, and candy makers,” Harkin said. “Given the enormous public health costs associated with childhood obesity, our bill promotes healthier lifestyles by promoting the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which I created in 2002 to help expand access to healthy foods by providing free produce to elementary schools in high-poverty areas. This is a commonsense measure and I urge my colleagues to support its adoption.”

“This measure makes taxpayers allies of health advocates and nutritious eating, rather than aiders and abettors of junk food,” Blumenthal said. “By eliminating the nonsensical tax loophole allowing companies to write off the cost of marketing junk food and sugary beverages to children, the Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act will encourage companies to put their creative talents toward promoting nutritious foods, and bring in revenue that will be put to good use – providing fresh fruits and vegetables for elementary school children.”

Under the current federal tax code, companies are able to deduct marketing and advertising expenses from their income taxes, including expenses for marketing unhealthy food and sugary beverages to children. The Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act would amend the tax code to prohibit a deduction for advertising directed at children to promote the consumption of food and beverages of “poor nutritional quality.” The legislation would also direct the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (in consultation with the Secretary of the Federal Trade Commission) to contract with the Institute of Medicine to define foods and brands of “poor nutritional quality.”

Children today are growing up immersed in an environment that promotes unhealthy foods and beverages. Products high in fat, sugar, and salt comprise 88 percent of food and beverage television advertising seen by children. Each day, children see an average of 13 food and beverage ads on television – on top of a great deal of other food marketing through product packaging, character and athlete endorsements, online banner ads, advergames, and more. According to a 2012 report from the Federal Trade Commission, nearly $2 billion a year is spent marketing food to children.

Companies spend billions of dollars marketing to children for one reason – it works. A comprehensive report from the Institute of Medicine confirmed that "aggressive marketing of high-calorie foods to children and adolescents has been identified as one of the major contributors to childhood obesity." The report concluded that television food advertising adversely affects children’s food preferences, purchase requests, diets, and health. While reducing obesity requires a multi-faceted approach, the Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act would remove an incentive for food and beverage companies to market unhealthy food to children, and encourage them to use their creativity and resources to encourage children to make healthy eating decisions.

The Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act is supported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, American Public Health Association, American Heart Association, Prevention Institute, Public Citizen, and Corporate Accountability International. More information on the legislation can be found here.