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Legislation aims to promote mental health through realistic advertising images

The Massachusetts Statehouse.Chika Okoye

State Representative Kay Khan has proposed a bill in an attempt to incentivize businesses and advertising agencies in Massachusetts to use realistic images in their advertisements. The measure would provide tax credits to businesses that pledge to not digitally alter models’ natural body size or shape, and skin tone or texture, in advertisements.

“The bill would provide an annual tax credit of up to $10,000 for cosmetic personal care and apparel companies to not use digitally altered advertisements,” said Khan, a Newton Democrat.

Social isolation and a year indoors during the COVID-19 crisis has led to an increase in adolescents who have an unhealthy relationship with food. Experts say the pandemic has doubled the eating disorder caseload at some children’s hospitals around the country.

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Monika Ostroff, executive director of The Multiservice Eating Disorders Association, a nonprofit organization based in Newton providing education about eating disorders and access to recovery and support services, said she thinks advertising is partially to blame.

“We’re so influenced by what we see,” Ostroff said. “If we’re able to see images that reflect who we are, we will naturally start feeling better about ourselves because we won’t have that constant reminder that somehow we’re different, or we don’t measure up or we don’t fit in.”

Khan’s bill, proposed alongside state Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, Democrat of Needham, is meant to promote mental health among youth through realistic advertising images.

“I have been interested in the whole area of eating disorders for a very, very long time,” Khan said. “So we put together a group — a small group — who started to take a look at perhaps writing some legislation that would address the whole issue of eating disorders.”

Bryn Austin, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and founding director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders at Harvard Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital, said she focuses on how government can incentivize businesses to do more to protect the health of young readers.

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“We know from other areas of work around public health or the environment that tax incentives have been used to help nudge companies toward doing the right thing when outright bans or punishments through penalties weren’t going to be sufficient to get something done,” Austin said.

Austin said First Amendment rights protect commercial speech, which means lawmakers cannot outright ban digital alterations of advertising images.

“There’s emerging research showing us that when readers see a diversity of body sizes, a diversity of skin shades, diversity of ages, they respond much more positively, and it’s protective for them,” Austin said.

Austin said she thinks it’s the businesses’ responsibility to do right by teenagers.

“Ultimately, it’s companies that are creating the toxic media environment for young people, and it’s companies that are going to have to solve it,” Austin said. “We’re showing them a way that they can do that.”

Khan previously filed a similar bill during the 2019 legislative session, but Austin said it was tabled due to the pandemic. The current bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Revenue with a hearing date scheduled for Dec. 13.

“The hope is that it really does provide more visibility for eating disorders as a problem, and the hope is that some of these companies would begin to change,” Khan said.

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Chika Okoye can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.