Study by UNE researcher Michele Polacsek finds junk food marketing still widespread in Maine schools despite ban

March 07, 2012

A study released today by lead author and University of New England Associate Professor of Public Health Michele Polacsek, PhD, MHS, reveals that despite a statewide ban in effect since 2007, widespread marketing of non-nutritious foods and beverages still occurs in Maine high schools. 

The study "Examining Compliance with a Statewide Law Banning Junk Food and Beverage Marketing in Maine Schools," appears in the March/April edition of Public Health Reports and was funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Healthy Eating Research program.

The results of the study are being released today by Polacsek at the Physical Activity and Nutrition Summit 2012 in Augusta, Maine. Co-authors of the study include Karen O'Rourke, MPH, Deputy Director of UNE's Center for Community and Public Health; Liam O'Brien, PhD; Janet Whatley Blum, ScD; and Sara Donahue, MPH.

In September 2007, Maine became the first state to pass a law prohibiting marketing of foods of minimal nutritional value (FMNV) on public school grounds. 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. Soda, cookies and gum fall into the FMNV category. 

Survey of Maine High Schools

To see how schools complied with the law, researchers visited a representative sample of Maine high schools in 2010, interviewed principals and the food service director or other key administrators, and tracked the nature and extent of marketing materials displayed in schools. This is the first study to assess schools' compliance with a law limiting marketing in public schools.

The researchers found that posters and signs for unhealthy foods and beverages appeared in 85 percent of Maine high schools. On average, each school that violated the law had nearly 12 posters, signs, vending machine exteriors or other promotions for FMNV.

"We were very surprised to learn that so many schools still promote unhealthy fare in teachers' lounges and near athletic areas, including gyms and sports fields, over and above the marketing found in cafeterias where these items are most often sold and consumed," said UNE's Polacsek. "Schools overwhelmingly support limiting their students' exposure to unhealthy food marketing on campus, but need more help on the ground," she noted.

Interview results showed that in 95 percent of schools, at least one administrator 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 interviewed report knowing about the ban on promotions for unhealthy foods and drinks. 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 remove noncompliant marketing.

During the assessment of overall marketing in schools, researchers also found:

  • Nearly 200 different food and beverage products were marketed in schools. Each school displayed 49 food or beverage posters and signs on average.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 Polacsek. "During the school day, kids are a captive audience, and they shouldn't be bombarded with ads for junk foods."

NPLAN Fact Sheet

To help Maine schools comply with the law, the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) developed a fact sheet outlining the restrictions on food sales and advertising in schools. This fact sheet will be disseminated to Maine schools in the coming months.

Public Health Reports is the official journal of the U.S. Public Health Service and the Office of the Surgeon General, and has been published continuously since 1878. It is published in partnership with the Association of Schools of Public Health.

About University of New England

The University of New England is an innovative health sciences university grounded in the liberal arts. UNE has internationally recognized scholars in the liberal arts, sciences, health and medicine, and offers more than 40 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Its two distinctive campuses on the coast of southern Maine offer student-centered interdisciplinary programs in the Westbrook College of Health Professions, College of Osteopathic Medicine, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Pharmacy, and College of Graduate Studies. The College of Dental Medicine will open in 2013.

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