D-H Pediatricians Link TV Ads with Youth Obesity, Alcohol Use

April 30, 2012

Susanne E. Tanski, MD, MPH, FAAP
and Auden C. McClure, MD, MPH, FAAP

Expanding on the long line of Dartmouth-Hitchcock research into the impact of mass media on risky behavior among young people, pediatricians Susanne E. Tanski, MD, MPH, FAAP, and Auden C. McClure, MD, MPH, FAAP, told colleagues from around the country on April 29 about new evidence linking television advertising of alcohol and fast food with drinking and obesity among teens and young adults.

During the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, Tanski and McClure described nationwide surveys in which their research team showed youngsters 20 still images from ads that appeared most often in the previous year for beer and hard-liquor brands and for quick-service restaurants. In both cases, the youths viewed ads that had undergone digital editing to remove the brand names and logos.

Among the 2,541 people ages 15 to 20 whom the researchers quizzed about underage use of alcohol, Tanski noted, those youths who reported consuming alcohol regularly – 59 percent of those surveyed – recognized many more of the commercials for beer and other spirits than did those who claimed not to drink.

"At present, the alcohol industry employs voluntary standards to direct their advertising to audiences comprised of adults of legal drinking age," said Tanski, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, from which Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) is the teaching hospital. "While this study cannot determine which came first – the exposure to advertising or the drinking behavior – it does suggest alcohol advertising may play a role in underage drinking, and the standards for alcohol ad placement perhaps should be more strict."

McClure, meanwhile, reported that among the 3,342 youths ages 15 to 23 who answered questions about their weight, their levels of exercise, and their habits of eating and watching television, those who described themselves as obese – 15 percent of participants – were more than twice as likely to recognize the disguised ads as their less-overweight peers.

"A similar association with obesity was not found for familiarity with televised alcohol ads, suggesting that the relationship was specific to fast-food advertising content," said McClure, also an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Geisel School. "After accounting for overall TV time, TV ad familiarity was still linked with obesity, suggesting that this finding is not simply due to increased sedentary time or an effect of TV programming. … Given the broad exposure of youth to advertising, the more we know about how media and marketing affect young people, the better equipped we are as pediatricians and parents to guide them in making healthy diet choices."

Tanski and McClure's colleague at the Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD), James D. Sargent, MD, FAAP, hastens to add that the fast-food study does not associate more frequent visits to the depicted restaurants with obesity.

"Individuals who are more familiar with these ads may have food consumption patterns that include many types of high-calorie food brands, or they may be especially sensitive to visual cues to eat while watching TV," said Sargent, who co-authored both studies with Tanski and McClure. "More research is necessary to determine how fast-food ad familiarity is linked to obesity."

More about D-H pediatricians' research into mass media and youth behaviors
About Dartmouth-Hitchcock

Dartmouth-Hitchcock is a national leader in evidence-based and patient-centered health care. The system includes hundreds of physicians, specialists, and other providers who work together at different locations to meet the health care needs of patients in northern New England. In addition to primary care services at local community practices, Dartmouth-Hitchcock patients have access to specialists in almost every area of medicine, as well as world-class research at the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College and centers of excellence including The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice (TDI).

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