The self-described “food police” at the Center for Science in the Public Interest argue that “State Attorneys General and trial lawyers should consider options for using the courts to protect children from junk-food marketing.” But does food advertising contribute to childhood obesity? You’d certainly think so if you read press reports about a Kaiser Family Foundation study released on Tuesday. Yahoo News took one look at the study and proclaimed that “advertising basically provides a super-size conduit from junk food straight to your child’s waistline.” But does Kaiser demonstrate that food advertising makes kids fat? Not at all.

“Many researchers suspect that the food advertising children are exposed to through the media may contribute to unhealthy food choices and weight gain,” Kaiser claims. [emphasis added] Yet of the 40 studies covered by their extensive report, not one can make this conclusion. In fact, Kaiser admits that television watching might not cause obesity at all. According to Kaiser, the connection between obesity and TV watching could be explained this way: “Being obese may cause children to engage in more sedentary (and isolated) activities, including watching more television.”

A Kaiser spokesperson told the New York Times that their most compelling evidence for the advertising-causes-obesity theory came from studies that saw weight loss after cutting children’s exposure to media. “What’s really powerful,” she said, “are the interventions that have succeeded in reducing children’s weight problems by reducing the time spent with media.” Kaiser’s literature review, however, included only three such studies. Two of these got children to exercise more and/or gave them nutrition lessons as well as reducing their TV watching — so there’s no way to know what caused their weight loss.

That leaves them with a single study from 1996-1997 of 92 nine-year-olds living in San Jose, California. This is the only leg Kaiser has to stand on. But it turns out that the weight loss experienced by the kids in San Jose could be the result of any number of factors:

The program “significantly decreased the frequency with which children ate meals in front of the television.”
The children were instructed to reduce their use of not just TV, but videos and video games as well. (All parents worried about food advertising on games, raise your hand.)
Although the San Jose kids weren’t hitting the gym more often, they did “trend towards improvements in fitness.”

All in all, this study by no means singled out food advertising as the culprit in childhood obesity. Still, it was no surprise that Kaiser invited the study’s author to speak at its press conference on Tuesday.

Kelly “Big Brother” Brownell spoke at the conference as well. From the way he railed against food advertising, you’d never know that, in his own words, “there is only circumstantial evidence that the ads cause poor eating.” As the head of a Swedish think tank pointed out last week, “Sweden has for a long time banned all commercials targeting children, but still Swedish children are as obese as those in comparable countries.”