SpongeBob SquarePants Is the Next Joe Camel?

     SpongeBob SquarePants is the new Joe Camel. Thats the alarm bell CBS health reporter Dr. Emily Senay clanged for parents in her HealthWatch segment with co-host Julie Chen on the December 7 edition of The Early Show.

Senay was featured in studio in the 7:30 a.m. half hour to talk about a study released the day before by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) which hints at but doesnt prove a link between cartoon characters advertising for high-calorie sugary foods with rising obesity among children.

When co-host Julie Chen raised the issue of parental responsibility, the University of Chicago alumna quickly dismissed the notion. Parents certainly have a role to play, here, but this is very powerful stuff, she warned, adding, its not unlike, for example Joe Camel, in effect comparing the lovable sea sponge to the famous tobacco-puffing camel outlawed by a 1997 tobacco settlement.

Senay was parroting the party line from the anti-food industry groups. George Washington University Law School John F. Banzhaf III, one of the most outspoken of those also gained his reputation suing the tobacco companies. Banzhaf was one of the featured speakers at the 2nd Annual conference of Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic in Boston in 2004. There he led a session entitled Patience, hell. Lets sue somebody.

According to the July 14, 2002, Sydney Herald, he pioneered the notion of suing tobacco companies for the deleterious health consequences of smoking. Banzhafs Web site details his long history of fighting for greater regulation of tobacco, and how he employs similar legal strategies to attack the food industry. Banzhaf, praising himself on his Web site notes he, helped drive cigarette commercials off the air, and started the nonsmokers' rights movement by first getting no-smoking sections and then smoking bans on airplanes and in many other public places.

At no point in the interview did Chen ask about or Senay point out the role lack of exercise has in fattening up Americas youth, although a December 7 fact sheet by the American Heart Association reported that 33.4 percent of youth dont engage in physical activity that promotes long-term health.

ABCs Good Morning America, also aired a brief report on the IOM study in the 8:00 a.m. half hour of their December 7 program. Correspondent Lisa Stark included a soundbite from Institute of Medicine Senior Scholar Michael McGinnis who warned that there is strong evidence that television advertising influences the diets of children.

McGinnis, however, is far from a neutral observer without an agenda. Before joining the Institute of Medicine in 2005, McGinnis served as senior vice president and director of the Health Group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization the Center for Consumer Freedom has documented as a frequent critic of the food industry.

Neither Senay nor Stark mentioned that the childrens obesity study was requested by liberal Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a congressional ally of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a liberal activist group which has frequently called for greater government regulation of the food industry. Harkins initial call for the study was praised by CSPI in a March 2005 press release.

The Business & Media Institute has repeatedly documented (see links below) how the media have given one-sided coverage to obesity issues, frequently heralding studies touted by groups like CSPI while failing to include opposing viewpoints.

SuperSized Bias (special report)
SuperSized Bias II (special report)