Commercial marketing in schools may discourage healthy nutrition environment for students

December 13, 2006

Commercial activity permitted in schools, such as soft drink ads; the use of Channel One broadcasts in classrooms; sales incentives from soft drink bottlers; and exclusive beverage contracts may discourage a "nutrition-friendly" environment for students, says researchers.

Dr. Claudia Probart, Penn State associate professor of nutritional sciences who led the study, says, "Schools' newly created wellness policies as mandated by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 provide ideal opportunities to examine school environments for advertising that might conflict with their goals for a healthy climate for students."

The study is detailed in the current (December) issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in a paper, "Existence and Predictors of Soft Drink Advertisements in Pennsylvania High Schools." The authors are Probart; Elaine McDonnell, project coordinator, Penn State; Lisa Bailey-Davis, director of operations, Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Activity; and J. Elaine Weirich, project manager at Penn State.

The researchers sent surveys to 271 school foodservice directors at high schools in Pennsylvania and received 84 percent participation. The schools were representative of the entire population of high schools in Pennsylvania.

Approximately two-thirds (66.5%) of the respondents said soft drink advertisements were located in at least one spot in their school, with 62 percent at vending machines and 27 percent on school grounds such as sports playing fields. More than 10 percent of the respondents said the ads were displayed in the cafeteria.

Factors influencing the number of soft drink ads were soft drink company incentives from distributors, exclusive beverage contracts with the schools and subscriptions to Channel One, a free 12-minute news broadcast with 2 minutes of advertisements.

The extent of soft drink ads appears to be linked to lower average daily participation in the school lunch program, the researchers write.

"The negative association between number of soft drink advertisement locations and participation in school lunch is a disturbing finding, suggesting these ads compete effectively with school lunches, which are designed for good nutrition," Probart notes.

McDonnell adds, "The school-supported appearance of commercial advertising in locations or in news programs may be sending silent messages that this brand might be 'OK,' creating a 'halo effect.' "

This study points to the need for additional research, including physical inventories of commercialization on school campuses to verify the possible impact on students. The findings may prompt consideration of tough issues because financially strapped schools may not be able to replace the revenue from commercial activity.

"However, under the 2004 legislation, schools are being asked to become zones of good health and nutrition, providing leadership in the effort to prevent childhood obesity," Probart says. "One way is for a community, parents and educators to change teens' unhealthy eating habits is to develop, implement and enforce policies to create advertising-free, nutrition-friendly school environments."
-end-
The study was supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Health through Grant/Cooperative Agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Penn State

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