Obesity has become a problem in the United States and around the world. The number of people that are overweight and obese has steadily increased since the middle of the 20th century. Prior to this, obesity was rarely seen and almost never caused health problems.
The world’s population has continued to grow as a result of advancements in healthcare and medicine. This has been fueled by the agricultural and industrial revolutions that have made food plentiful. In addition, the refining process for sugar has become improved which has made these simple carbohydrates commonplace. As a result, sugar sweetened beverages and candies have become ubiquitous.
The marketing of these food items has been aggressive and their placement at the end of supermarket aisles and checkout registers has made them increasingly difficult to resist. At the cash register, the candy is placed in locations that are at eye level for children intentionally to attract their attention. Children often badger their parents to purchase candy at the checkout register as a result of this strategic location.
Recently, several health policy experts have stated that the location of sugar sweetened candies at the end of aisles and at the cash register is a health risk and contributes to the obesity epidemic. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Deborah Cohen and Dr. Susan Babey argue that the candy marketing strategy that is currently in practice is a health risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
The authors wrote, “What and how much people eat are highly influenced by contextual factors that they may not recognize and therefore cannot easily resist. A clear example of this influence is the placement of candy at the cash register, which is widely acknowledged to be a promotional strategy called “impulse marketing”. Impulse marketing encourages spur-of-the-moment, emotion-related purchases that are triggered by seeing the product or a related message”.
The authors also wrote, “Because of this chain of causation, we would argue that the prominent placement of foods associated with chronic diseases should be treated as a risk factor for those diseases. And in light of the public health implications, steps should be taken to mitigate that risk”.
The authors concluded, “Although placement is a factor that is right in front of our noses, we should consider treating it as a hidden risk factor, like carcinogens in water, because placement influences our food choices in a way that is largely automatic and out of our conscious control and that subsequently affects our risk of diet-related chronic diseases”.
The placement of candy in checkout aisles is definitely a risk to health because, either consciously or unconsciously, we are drawn to buy and consume these high calorie nutrient poor foods. The authors of the editorial suggest that a possible risk reduction strategy would be to limit the types of foods that can be placed in these locations. I am in agreement, and believe that these marketing practices are detrimental to health on a long-term basis due to the influence on the development of obesity. What is particularly concerning is that the location of candy at checkout aisles is done in a way to target young children who cannot detect this deceptive marketing. Public health policy should further examine this topic in an effort to limit its negative influence on health.
Deborah A. Cohen and Susan H. Babey “Candy at the Cash Register – A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease” N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1381-1383October 11, 2012doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1209443