obesity crisis

OP/ED: The obesity police turn a solvable problem into a needless war

Following Coca-Cola’s recent airing of obesity-themed ads on US television, the obesity police have come out blazing, turning a solvable problem into a needless war. The food-beverage industries have never been under more pressure from ever-shriller war cries. Here are some excellent, sane opinion pieces from Forbes on this hot topic.

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, writes

If there’s agreement about anything in our hotly-politicised environment today it is that while we work to find sensible and principled solutions to real-world problems, we also need to do a better job coming to consensuses.

But when it comes to addressing obesity, the most prominent public health activists are intent at making it into a war, rather than a solvable problem.

Consider their reaction to Coca-Cola’s latest commercial which discusses the challenges of obesity.

Sure, the commercial strives to put the company in the best possible light; I’d expect nothing else. But having watched the commercial several times, I can’t put my finger on any justifiable reason the activists are so up in arms. The actual language of the ad is scientifically accurate and encourages healthy dialogue.

It points out that obesity is caused by consuming more calories than we burn, and that calories come from many sources, including Coca-Cola. It also touts the company’s no and low-calorie options, its continued support for programs that promote active lifestyles, and its efforts to make sure consumers know how many calories are in each product.

Yet groups claiming to speak on behalf of public health are up in arms about the ad…..

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To anti-sugar zealots, nothing short of a coca-cola ban is enough

Rick Berman, the Executive Director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices, writes:

….Yet instead of welcoming the opportunity to move forward constructively, activists who claim to be dedicated to fighting obesity have responded by lobbing rhetorical grenades.

There are two models for improving the healthfulness of food products. The first, taken by various food and beverage companies, is to create healthier choices and offer them to consumers. Activists want bans, taxes, and outlandish warnings to take choices away.

Smart business operators respond to consumer demand:  67 percent of Americans, according to a survey last year by market research firm Mintel, choose healthy foods to get or stay well. So to stay competitive, producers, retailers, and restaurants are offering healthier options to people who want them. In addition to soft drink companies’ low- and no-calorie products, restaurants have added low-calorie menus and snack food companies now offer 100-calorie packs.

Food companies respond to demands for healthier options by increasing choices, offering lower-calorie, lower-fat, and lower-sugar products. But to activists, adding better-for-you options is not enough. They claim that only by using policy to deny consumers the choices that activists don’t like will progress be made.

Researchers writing in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease have called for alcohol control as a model for food regulation. Policy ideas have included banning soda sales to minors, “naming of food by percentage of fat and sugar content,” and warning labels on foods high in calories.

That’s not a call for constructive conversation and a balanced approach. That’s a call for endless conflict, possibly ending in another futile attempt at product Prohibition…..

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Taxes on ‘fatty foods’, and their unintended consequences

George Pieler, attorney and former tax counsel to the Senate Finance Committee, and Jens Laurson, Editor-at-Large for the International Affairs Forum, write:

…Social science-wise, it is naïve to believe you can change behaviour with taxes and raise revenue at the same time. You may do a little of each, but revenue-raising always seems to win out in the end.

A good starting point for alternative anti-obesity measures would be the separation of revenue-raising and public health, emphasizing sound habits (including physical exercise) in schools as appropriate tasks for the state and more efficient than chasing a people’s olive-oil intake. Personal health is a matter for individuals to figure out with the best information available. Taxes are taxes and should be kept simple for the sake of transparency and accountability.

More respect for the virtues and limitations of nutritional science wouldn’t hurt either. Of course folks eating lots of fat, other things being equal, will be fat(ter). But fat is also a fundamental, necessary component of the human diet, and only one piece of the complex dietary puzzle. There is a limit to how much you can or should do by way of clumsy state control over consumption of fat or any other nutrients that a current fad happens to label as bad.

Individual metabolism is not something governments can control (not yet), nor can they isolate the fat input from the rest of the diet, much less unknowns such as genetics, lifestyle, and exercise regimens. In short: the state can’t micromanage human health, nor should it ever be permitted to do so…..

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Obesity: The new ‘Just Say No’ for 2013

Scott Atlas, MD, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of the book In Excellent Health: Setting the Record Straight on America’s Health Care, writes:

…Since studies of the 1960’s clarified the impact of cigarette smoking on health, smoking became an object of concerted public health efforts and smokers were ostracised with great effect on the incidence of smoking in the United States. Yet the discussion of obesity is held to a different standard, considered not only politically incorrect but even labelled as discrimination and prejudice.

It is notable that US trends in smoking and obesity have been in opposite directions; over the past fifteen years, smoking rates have declined by 20 percent, while obesity rates have increased by 48 percent. In a society where the most gruesome images are put forth to discourage smoking, and are effective in doing so, there should be no hesitancy to start a similar campaign that uses graphic advertising to illustrate the consequences of being overweight.

A first important step is to openly admit and emphasise that increasing rates of obesity are primarily due to overeating coupled with a lack of sufficient exercise. Although the causes of obesity are undoubtedly complex, only a limited number of cases are primarily due to genetics. Genetics of populations change far too slowly and cannot explain the recent sharp increase in obesity rates or the pattern of increasing prevalence of obesity first and most severe in the US and later in the world’s economically developing countries.

Obesity is a uniquely urgent crisis in the United States. Americans are the fattest in the world, and the future is bleak. It is even more sobering to realise that obesity is estimated to show a lag time of about 25 years before its total effect on premature death and disease is seen. Given the higher rates and predicted trends of obesity in American children and adults, health gains over the past century could be wiped out by the deleterious effects on disease outcomes and life expectancy that will be seen for decades to come if the current situation is not remedied.

No magic medicine or easy cure is apparent, but perhaps the most effective message that government can send is to hold individuals accountable for their own personal lifestyle decisions. Health care reform in the US urgently needs to embrace a new era of personal responsibility, and obesity should be the highest priority…..

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