Federal Trade Commission: Advertising Practices to Promote Public Health

Apr 30, 2012, 5:25 PM, Posted by

Mary_Engle Mary Engle, Federal Trade Commission

The National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy is about to celebrate its first anniversary. The Strategy offers a comprehensive plan aimed at increasing the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of life. A cornerstone of the National Prevention Strategy is that it recognizes that good health comes not just from receiving quality medical care, but also from the conditions we face where we live, learn work and play such as clean water and air, safe worksites and healthy foods. The strategy was developed by the National Prevention Council, which is composed of 17 federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and others.

As the Strategy is rolled out, NewPublicHealth will be speaking with Cabinet Secretaries, Agency directors and their designees to the Prevention Council about the initiatives being introduced to help Americans work toward the goal of long and healthy lives.

This week, NewPublicHealth spoke with Mary Engle, Director of the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Division of Advertising Practices, and National Prevention Council designee.

NewPublicHealth: Why is health a priority for the FTC? Why was it important for FTC to be involved in the development of the National Prevention Strategy?

Mary Engle: When you think about our mission, which is to protect consumers and maintain competition in the marketplace, health is such an important part of that. We want to make sure consumers aren’t misled about health services and products marketed to them and that they don’t pay more than they need to.

Initiatives that are a priority for us include combating deceptive advertising of fraudulent cure-all claims for dietary supplements and weight loss products; monitoring and reporting on the marketing of food to children as well as alcohol and tobacco marketing practices; and developing consumer education materials designed to empower consumers to make informed health care decisions and to avoid fraud.

NPH: What FTC initiatives support the National Prevention Strategy?

Mary Engle: Among our top activities, you’ll see taking law enforcement actions against deceptive health-related marketing. We also maintain the “We Don’t Serve Teens” education campaign and website designed to encourage compliance with the legal drinking age of 21. Our goal is to reduce underage drinking, including binge drinking.

We started it five years ago and it stems from findings that show that most teens get their alcohol from social situations—from friends, relatives and acquaintances. And so there’s a culture that it’s acceptable to have that happen, and we want to address that culture. We have partnered with advocacy groups, other federal agencies, Century Council (a non-profit formed by distilled spirits companies) to work against the culture and reduce drunk driving and underage driving. We have a lot of education messages around the idea of not serving alcohol to teens, including ways parents can talk to other parents—to let them know that it’s not okay to serve their kids alcohol and to combat myths such as “teens drink in Europe and there’s no problem with drunk driving or binge drinking there.” That’s not true.

The FTC also promotes improvements in voluntary alcohol industry guidelines of the beer, wine and spirits industries, relating to the placement and content of alcohol advertising, in order to better protect youth under 21 from exposure to alcohol marketing.

NPH: Which other departments or agencies have been (or could be) effective partners in prevention with FTC?

Mary Engle: The FTC works closely with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to public health issues that involve cure-all claims, deceptive Internet marketing practices, advertising of food to children, and alcohol and tobacco marketing practices. In addition, the FTC works with the Department of Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau with regard to alcohol marketing. The FTC also is a member of the Interagency Coordinating Committee to Prevent Underage Drinking, composed of federal agencies responsible for underage drinking issues.

NPH: How is the FTC working with state and local governments and private sector partners to advance its work in prevention?

Mary Engle: The core of the We Don’t Serve Teens program is a website that provides factual information based on federal government data about the rates and risks of teen drinking, links to state alcohol laws, and talking points parents and other adults can use to answer people who challenge the benefits of the legal drinking age.

To drive people to the website, the site includes free downloadable materials such as billboard and transit art, radio PSAs, web banners and buttons, as well as preformatted press releases and news stories. Additionally, we print and make available for free adhesive decals that can be used in communities. This year’s decals, for example, say, “The legal drinking age is 21.Thanks for not providing alcohol to teens.” Starting in 2006, we engaged in aggressive outreach to let a wide range of stakeholders—the prevention and advertising communities, state alcohol regulators and law enforcement, plus alcohol suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers—know that the materials were available.

Now, in late Spring of each year, we send out reminders to program partners about the campaign. We ask that they, in turn, do what they can to promote the campaign during the late August to October back-to-school season.

NPH: Who are some of the FTC’s important partners?

Mary Engle: A good example is the Children’s Food Advertising Initiative by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. A few years ago the Bureau established the initiative partly in response to our urging the food industry to improve the nutrition of food they market to children. It now encompasses almost all food, beverage and fast food marketers in the U.S. We have continued to push them to improve their efforts.

FTC got involved in the area in the early 2000’s, when the Surgeon General issued a call to action on childhood obesity. So we thought about what we could do as an agency that is not a public health agency, but focuses on the marketplace, and we have a long-standing history of protecting children from unfair and deceptive advertising. And so we decided to push companies to put their marketing muscle behind healthier foods.

>>Also read FTC’s report, “Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: A Review of Industry Expenditures, Activities, and Self-Regulation.” A follow-up report will be issued later this year.

NPH: What success has the agency seen from the "We Don’t Serve Teens" initiative, and how might lessons learned from that project inform other prevention projects?

Mary Engle: Over the past six years, there have been hundreds of news stories about the campaign and the importance of the legal drinking age. With the help of our public and private partners, thousands of ads have appeared on billboards, radio and television, and in magazines. Additionally, several hundred thousand decals have been distributed nationwide with the help of state regulators, law enforcement and alcohol industry members, as well as numerous smaller organizations (school systems, police departments, and community prevention groups).

We think that the success of the program has been based on several things including a user-friendly, often-updated website, tools our partners can easily use including artwork, PSAs and news article. We also regularly send out signs for posting in stores that help to continually reinvigorate the key messages. So, we have leveraged a small investment of federal funds into a widely disseminated, sustainable education campaign.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.