Study Shows Widespread Marketing of Unhealthy Foods and Beverages in Maine High Schools, Despite Statewide Marketing Ban

    • March 8, 2012

Posters and signs for unhealthy foods and beverages appeared in 85 percent of Maine high schools, despite a state law that prohibits marketing such products on campus, according to a study released in March by Public Health Reports. On average, each school that violated the law had nearly 12 posters, signs, vending machine exteriors or other promotions for foods of minimal nutritional value (FMNV). The FMNV standard was established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and includes foods and beverages that provide less than 5 percent of the recommended daily intake of eight key nutrients. For example, soda, cookies and gum would fall into the FMNV category.

Maine was the first state to pass a law prohibiting marketing of FMNV on public school grounds. To see how schools complied with the law, which went into effect in September 2007, researchers visited a representative sample of high schools in the state. In each school, researchers interviewed at least two administrators—the principal, as well as the food service director or another key administrator. They also tracked the nature and extent of marketing materials displayed in schools. The study, which was conducted in 2010, was the first to assess schools’ compliance with a law limiting marketing in public schools. “The promotion of non-nutritious foods and beverages undermines school health education curricula and parents’ efforts to help their kids make healthy choices. If we want schools to be healthier, limiting marketing for unhealthy foods and beverages is crucial,” said Michele Polacsek, PhD, MHS, associate professor at the University of New England. “During the school day, kids are a captive audience, and they shouldn’t be bombarded with ads for junk foods.” Study results showed that, in 95 percent of schools, at least one of the two administrators interviewed agreed that banning unhealthy food and beverage marketing in schools is important. However, knowledge about the law was not as strong. In only 15 percent of schools did both administrators report knowing about the marketing ban on FMNV. In addition, in only 45 percent of schools did at least one administrator report that any changes to school food and beverage marketing had been made since the law went into effect. Moreover, administrators in 80 percent of schools reported wanting more help to meet the law’s requirements, such as technical assistance to assess the school marketing environment and work with vendors to remove marketing that is noncompliant. During the assessment of overall marketing in schools, researchers also found:

  • Nearly 200 different food and beverage products were marketed in schools. On average, each school displayed 49 food or beverage posters and signs.
  • There were 28 different noncompliant food or beverage products marketed in schools, and a significant portion of those were promoted in athletic areas and teachers’ lounges.
  • Most of the noncompliant marketing (76%) was for CocaCola and PepsiCo products combined.
  • The majority of food and beverage posters and signs were in cafeterias (52%), athletic areas (16%), entrances and hallways (12%) and teachers’ lounges (12%).
  • On average, each school had 5.6 vending machines.

The study, “Examining Compliance with a Statewide Law Banning Junk Food and Beverage Marketing in Maine Schools,” was funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Healthy Eating Research program.