CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Four U.S. senators are calling on children's cable network Nickelodeon to ban ads targeted at children that promote and sell junk food and sugar.
A letter was sent this week to Nickelodeon and its parent company, Viacom Inc., by Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Tom Harkin of Iowa.
"As a leading multi-media entertainment destination for children and adolescents, Nickelodeon has a special opportunity — and responsibility — to help address our nation's childhood obesity epidemic," the senators wrote. "We ask that you implement a clear policy to guide the marketing of food to children on Nickelodeon's various media platforms, including the advertisements on your channels, Internet sites, and mobile platforms."
It follows a letter sent to the companies in December by a coalition of more than 80 health groups, doctors, and nutritionists urging them to implement strong nutrition standards for food marketing to children.
"As an entertainment company, Nickelodeon's primary responsibility is to make the highest quality content in the world for kids, and we leave the science of nutrition to the experts," Nickelodeon said in a statement Thursday. "No entertainment brand has worked as comprehensively and with more organizations dedicated to fighting childhood obesity over the past decade than Nickelodeon."
Nationally, about 12.5 million people age 19 and under, or 17 percent, are considered obese — triple the rate from a generation earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This is about making sure our kids are able to live strong, healthy lives, and there are concrete steps each of us can take to support these efforts," Rockefeller said.
In West Virginia, about 28 percent of fifth graders and one-fourth of second graders screened by West Virginia University's CARDIAC program in the 2011-12 school year were obese. But those rates were down from the previous year as schools focus on improving nutrition and increasing physical activity.
Last June, the Walt Disney Co. became the first major media company to ban ads for junk food on its television channels, radio stations and websites.
In March, a study released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found 69 percent of food ads on Nickelodeon were of poor nutritional quality.
"As long as Nickelodeon lags behind the rest of the industry, the company's behavior is likely to come under even greater scrutiny from parents, shareholders, regulators, and members of Congress," said Margo Wootan, the center's nutrition policy director.
Wootan said the center's study of 28 hours of Nickelodeon programming found two public-service announcements for physical activity, compared to 60 ads for unhealthy food.
Nickelodeon's response to the senators "isn't really a very good excuse," Wootan said. "Implementing (food ad) standards doesn't require them to be nutrition experts."