October 24, 2008

National media forum tackles childhood obesity

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Federal Communications Commissioners, from left, Robert McDowell, Jonathan Adelstein and Deborah Taylor Tate listen to speakers at last week’s Vanderbilt Forum on Pediatric Obesity. (photo by Dana Johnson)

National media forum tackles childhood obesity

Changing the health habits of children took center stage at a national conference held last week at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Children's Hospital and the Department of Pediatrics hosted a forum on Oct. 15 with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity (http://www.fcc.gov/obesity) to discuss children's television programming, advertisements directed at children, and ways to use them to halt the obesity epidemic.

“The average child today spends nearly 45 hours per week with media, compared with 17 hours with parents and 30 hours in school. We need to begin to use media as an ally in changing health habits of our children,” said Shari Barkin, M.D., director of the Division of General Pediatrics at Children's Hospital. “Any change begins with a giant step forward, together, and that's what (Oct. 15) was.”

Nashville native and FCC commissioner, Deborah Taylor Tate, worked with Barkin, bringing her fellow FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Robert McDowell to the forum. Leadership of major media companies also attended, including Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, and Kelly Pena, Vice President of Disney Channel's Worldwide Brand research.

Knell talked about the Sesame Workshop program Healthy Habits for Life (http://www.sesameworkshop.org/initiatives/health/healthyhabits/ ), a multi-year initiative designed to help preschoolers develop an early foundation of healthy habits.

“I heard a mother in Nashville say that she is glad to report to her children that even Cookie Monster can't have cookies all the time,” Knell joked about Cookie Monster's new catch phrase “cookies are a sometimes food.” He said the show has been teased on the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” for that, but at least people are talking.

Pena discussed Disney's decision to stop using its characters' likenesses in McDonald's Happy Meals. Characters are now licensed only for use on products that meet tighter nutritional guidelines.

Another participant, Alan Simpson, the director of policy at Common Sense Media, a not-for-profit organization that promotes increased quality in media, called media the “other parent in our children's lives.”

“But it is the creativity of those who produce media that cause people to fall in love with it. It is time to use that creativity to have a different impact on the audience,” Simpson said.

On the science end, Roger Cone, Ph.D., chairman of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt Medical Center, walked the audience through his discovery of a major molecular mechanism responsible for the brain signaling the body when to stop eating. Barkin followed with a presentation on the epidemiology of the childhood obesity epidemic: evidence that the global problem of childhood obesity is recent and very real. Douglas Kamerow, M.D., RTI chief scientist and a former United States Assistant Surgeon General, urged academic medical institutions like Vanderbilt to do the research to examine what works best to stop the obesity epidemic.

The forum was rounded out with presentations from Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Susan Cooper, M.S.N., R.N., as well as leadership from the Children's Hospital and Harry Jacobson, M.D., the Medical Center's vice chancellor for Health Affairs. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean spoke to the stakeholders, reinforcing his commitment to the children of Nashville in the fight against obesity.

“At the end of the day I asked all of the participants to determine one thing they would commit to, and one community partner with whom to work,” Barkin said. “We have the right tools, now we need to figure out how to use them effectively — together.”