The Corporations, the Government, and Childhood Obesity

Chocolate-Covered Bacon 2

Childhood Obesity News has been considering an award-winning piece of journalism by Duff Wilson and Janet Roberts of Reuters, titled “Special Report: How Washington went soft on childhood obesity,” and what other experts thought of it. The report itself employs some strong language:

In the political arena, one side is winning the war on child obesity. The side with the fattest wallets. At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Elaine D. Kolish is director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative of the Better Business Bureau, and used to be the head of enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission. Kolish tells reporters that there is no proof of “a causal effect between food advertising and obesity.”

TV viewing is associated with childhood obesity, okay, the Institute of Medicine says so. But so far, research doesn’t find that obesity is directly caused by advertisements for junk food. Wilson and Roberts write:

Armed with those arguments and a bulging political war chest, the $1.5 trillion food and beverage industry has defeated soda taxes and marketing restrictions in cities and states across the nation, mounting referendums to overturn the taxes in the two states that passed them and persuading 16 states to prohibit lawsuits over fatty foods.

At least 50 lobbying groups that fought the idea of the even voluntary nutritional standards for food products that are sold to kids, and the journalists have studied them. Over a three-year period, the lobbyists spent $175 million to influence the opinions of lawmakers. When the First Lady seemed to deliberately shift the anti-obesity focus from food to exercise, that looked suspicious to her doubters. Some called it letting the food industry off the hook.

The megacorporations would like us to believe that obesity is everybody’s own fault, and not connected with hyperpalatable food-like products, not for a minute. Kelly Brownell of Yale University and, more specifically, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, has gone on record with a suggestion that Michelle Obama is too forgiving of the food industry these days.

For most professionals in the anti-obesity field, the paradigm that clinches all arguments is the analogy between the food industry and the tobacco industry. Look at the similarities, like the endless filibustering quibbles over self-regulation versus government regulation, and exposure of their product to particularly vulnerable populations, and so on.

Wilson and Roberts explain it all in great detail, and with further references to Brownell, who points out that both industries have deliberately marketed dangerous products to children, and that both use front groups (sometimes called astroturf, as opposed to grassroots) and pretend to be consumer-friendly when actually they are on the manufacturers’ side.

And, speaking of the similarities between big food companies and big tobacco companies, in at least one case they are the same company:

Kraft Foods, the nation’s largest food company, was owned by Philip Morris, the nation’s largest tobacco company, from 1988-2007. Philip Morris makes Marlboro cigarettes.

Here is another question: Is any of this even the government’s business? According to a recent survey conducted by the venerable Pew Research Center, most Americans say “yes”:

57% say the government should play a significant role in reducing obesity among children, while 39% say it should not. However, the public does not view the fight against obesity as a major policy priority for the president and Congress.

There are ethnic and demographic implications, described thusly:

Hispanics and African Americans are far more likely than whites to say the government should play a role in combating childhood obesity. Large majorities in both groups (83% of Hispanics, 74% of African Americans) express this view, while just 49% of whites agree.

Younger Americans are far more likely to see a significant role for government in cutting childhood obesity than are older Americans: Almost seven-in-ten (69%) of those younger than thirty say government should play a major role, while just 45% of those 65 and older agree.

One reason that Pew Research Center is so respected is because it amends to its reports a useful statement like this:

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Special Report: How Washington went soft on childhood obesity,” Reuters, 04/27/12
Source: “Most See Role for Government in Reducing Childhood Obesity,” People-Press.org, 03/08/11
Image by thetalesend (Ryan Basilio).

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