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Move Over, Tobacco

January 15, 2005

Junk food just moved a little closer to becoming as socially unacceptable as cigarettes, with the announcement by Kraft Foods that it will stop marketing its least nutritious products -- think Oreos and Kool-Aid -- to children younger than 12.

So far, the courts have resisted equating the two. Wrongful-obesity suits aimed at McDonald's, unlike anti-tobacco litigation, have gone nowhere. Food companies certainly have long known that more calories equals greater girth, but so did the rest of us. Kraft's announcement, though, puts sugary, fatty foods in the same category that cigarettes were in during the first efforts to crack down on them: Cool for adults, not for vulnerable youngsters.

Society could move forward with local ordinances that ban cookies from enclosed public places where others might be exposed to secondhand sugar, and, of course, at parks, where children might see them. Vending-machine sales of Ritz crackers would be banned. In fact, it might be best for stores to put the Cocoa Pebbles behind the counter. Children would have to show proof of incipient adolescence to purchase. Or they could always prevail upon some morally deficient adult, lurking in the supermarket parking lot, to buy their breakfast cereal for them.

Kraft is owned by tobacco company Altria, previously known as Philip Morris. After years of bruising litigation and regulation, Altria is now paying for messages urging people not to buy its tobacco products. Some have accused it of using reverse psychology in its anti-smoking campaign, secretly encouraging people to smoke by telling them not to. Come to think of it, little would give Jell-O more cachet than the message, "Sorry, the decision to eat strawberry gelatin is best made by an adult."

Maybe that's the idea behind Kraft's new initiative, but more likely it's just a matter of smart marketing. The company is trying to build trust with parents who are justifiably alarmed by childhood obesity rates and armed with a new set of U.S. dietary guidelines that call for more vegetables and whole grains and less sugar.

As part of that push, Kraft plans to design healthier products, market them to the younger set and label them as such. Problem is, Kraft will set up the labeling guidelines. Most parents will probably just whisk the items with the healthy label into their shopping carts without checking the ingredients to see if they're really a good nutritional choice.

Still, if Kraft can design a trans-fat-free Oreo -- and last year, it did -- it deserves plenty of credit. Now if it could make that little cookie with organic quinoa flour and sweeten it with carrot juice, it would finally have made the all-consuming merger between what we crave and what's good for us. But would that mean we'd have to lick off the broccoli-cream filling inside?

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