Kansas City Star

Wed, Oct. 31, 2012

How’s this for scary, kids: Little or no candy on Halloween

Some vocal health experts say it’s a sweet idea, especially in light of frightening rates of childhood obesity coupled with record Halloween candy sales — $2.3 billion last year, according to the National Confectioners Association.

Now they’re howling for a Halloween makeover.

• The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest offers a Halloween tipsheet on how to shift kids’ focus away from candy to reading and writing Halloween stories, making crafts and pumpkin muffins or running a haunted house.

• Child obesity expert Robert Pretlow, a Seattle pediatrician, claims some children are addicted to candy like it’s cocaine. He’s calling for a “draconian shift” in the way we celebrate Halloween. In other words, lose the candy.

• Dentists nationwide are giving kids $1 for every pound of Halloween candy they hand over. They’ll send the treats to American soldiers through a program called Operation Gratitude ( halloweencandybuyback.com). In addition, through the Stop Zombie Mouth campaign, dentists hope to redefine “treats” by giving away 1 million packs of trading cards and coupons for the “Plants vs. Zombies” video game.

The anti-candy crusade has hit home, too. A Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood association decided that its annual Halloween party last weekend was the perfect time to address the problem of childhood obesity.

Translation? No candy for you, Timmy. Have an apple.

We hear you out there.

Those poor kids! What’s next? Halloween salad bars? Goodie bags with carrots sticks and cauliflower?

Bite your sugarcoated tongue, said Erin Stryka, an organizer of the Rosedale Development Association’s Healthy Halloween. Her party featured popcorn and pretzels, pears and apples, honey sticks and a make-your-own trail-mix table, along with activities that got kids moving.

The group decided to cut the candy three years ago after statistics from the University of Kansas Medical Center showed that 51 percent of grade-school students in Rosedale were overweight or obese.

“Childhood obesity leads to serious health problems, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer,” Stryka said. “And research shows that children who are obese become adults who are obese. So reducing childhood obesity can really improve community health.”

Yeah, but can’t kids enjoy a sugar high one day a year?

“Oh, they can still go out and get candy on Halloween,” Stryka said. “No one’s being deprived here.”

But they are trying to send a message: You don’t need candy to have a good time.

At Saturday’s party in Whitmore Park, no one complained about the lack of candy. Most, like Allie West, who turns 9 next month, say they found it a refreshing change.

“It’s a good idea because candy is bad for you,” she said. “It can cause cavities and make you fat.”

Liz Medina said she was glad her 6-year-old son, Dominic, and his 8-year-old uncle, Marcos, were eating healthy snacks.

“They’re having a party at their school, and they’re probably going to get candy,” she said. “And then I’ll take them trick-or-treating and they’ll get even more candy. So this is good. No candy!”

But no one there wanted to ban all Halloween candy.

“That would be crazy,” said 10-year-old Tommy Smith. “But that would never happen. There’s too much of it out there.”

Exactly, said Heidi Holliday, executive director of the Rosedale Development Association.

“Candy’s not as special as it used to be. When I was a kid I never got candy except on Halloween. Now it’s everywhere! We just wanted to offer an alternative.”

Plenty of others are doing the same thing.

As part of its Stop Zombie Mouth campaign, the American Dental Association reported that while 65 percent of children ages 5 to 13 consider Halloween their favorite holiday, they’re ready for a change. Two-thirds of those surveyed thought they ate too much candy at Halloween, while nearly 90 percent said they’d still like the holiday if it was less about sweets. A majority also said they would just as soon receive a toy or video game as candy.

Said spokesman Jonathan Shenkin: “Children are asking us as adults to help curb sugary snacks.”

Richard Viloria, a Raymore dentist, is trying to do that by participating in the candy buyback program.

“With the continued rise of childhood-onset diabetes and childhood obesity, it’s not going to hurt if kids turn in a little bit of their candy,” he said.

That’s not enough for Pretlow, the Seattle pediatrician.

“The candy situation for our kids at Halloween is just appalling,” he said. “There is mounting evidence that sugar is an addictive substance. So what are we doing to our children by exposing them to this addictive substance every year in the form of candy?”

He knows it’s an uphill battle, and he’ll likely be pilloried for being the guy who wants to cancel childhood. He doesn’t care. People have to realize that the free candy they hand out to be nice causes serious problems for obese children who’ve become addicted to sweets.

He cited a 2011 study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, where researchers gave kids with a candy compulsion chocolate milkshakes, and then did brain scans.

“When they drank the milkshake a certain part of their brain lit up,” he said, “a part that didn’t light up in the brains of other kids. The interesting part was that the part of the brain that lit up is the same part that lights up in people who are addicted to cocaine.”

Crazy comparison?

Not really.

“Are you aware that cocaine was given to children around the turn of the century?” Pretlow said. “They loved it! It soothed them, and we thought it was good for them. At some point we realized it was addictive and we were producing addicts. We’re doing the same thing now with candy.”

Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association, said children can learn how to incorporate moderate amounts of sweets into their lives.

“Candy is a fun part of holiday and family celebrations,” she said. “And pleasure and enjoyment are also necessary for a happy healthy, life.” Pretlow would rather they incorporate fresh fruit into their lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, and that one in three children born after 2000 will develop diabetes.

Fatima Mirza, a pediatrician in the Northland, said while she is concerned about childhood obesity, “one day a year with candy would not hurt.”

While she encouraged parental supervision to help children make wise choices, she did not favor replacing all Halloween candy with fruit.

“I think going from candy to fruit on Halloween might be too drastic of a change,” she said. “I could just see the kids’ faces.”

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, also wouldn’t ban candy for fear of making it “too special.” But she does think kids should cut back.

“Trick-or-treating has turned into a weeklong candy extravaganza,” she said. “It’s important to bring it back into balance.”

Overland Park psychologist Rebecca Miles said it all comes down to good parenting and common sense.

“It’s important to have limits,” she said. “I don’t let my child have unlimited amounts of candy. I think it’s reasonable to let your child have a few pieces, then put the rest aside for later or donate it. Use it as a teachable moment and model for your child. That’s our job as parents.”