Fat Acceptance and Fat-Shaming

2009_09

Shouldn’t every person have the right to feel good about herself or himself? One of the great paradoxical tenets of the psychological health profession is that change must be preceded by self-acceptance. You have to be okay with yourself as you are before you can move on. In Reddit.com’s fatlogic interest group, someone proposed the question, “Can fat acceptance be good sometimes, as a transitional step?”

No, replied someone who believes that fat acceptance makes the situation of chronic over-eaters even more difficult. Another person compares the “Health at Every Size” movement to self-deluding climate change deniers, a sentiment echoed by a comment noting that fat acceptance is the refusal to acknowledge that obesity can kill. A respondent called “fatattacker” suggests that acceptance should only apply to things that do not negatively affect a person’s health, and adds:

People shouldn’t feel good about being fat. They should hate it. Hate it to the point where they DO something about it. I couldn’t have lost weight without having this mentality.

That reply is strangely reminiscent of Matt Mira’s remark about almost wishing that horrible fat-shaming online forums, such as the recently banned subreddits, had existed when he was a teenager because the negative attention might have jolted him into awareness. “Altarocks” asserts that “accepting the problem is real is not the same as accepting that the problem is okay” and that fat acceptance “should last one minute,” to be immediately followed by decisive action. Someone known as “ashleab” writes:

The key is SELF acceptance, not fat acceptance. Accept yourself, and do what you can to improve. Don’t accept your fat.

One man writes about his strong, shame-based fear of being seen to exercise. But, he says, stepping into the gym for the first time was when he broke away from the shame:

I actually started working on it, not because I wanted to get slimmer, but because when I mustered the courage to get there, I realized that working out was enjoyable in itself and helped me cope with depression.

That fact is key, whenever the subject of exercise is on the table. Even if there were no direct physical calorie in/energy out relationship between weight and activity, the indirect psychological effects of exercise can lead people to make astonishing changes. Media personality Joe Rogan often talks about how, if not for frequent vigorous workouts, he would not be able to stand himself, and his loved ones wouldn’t be able to put up with being around him.

Online it is possible to find an 11-minute clip from an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast (complete with salty language—you were warned!) where he talks about the controversy surrounding the “What’s Your Excuse?” mom. Baffled by the amount of support that is available for fatlogic, he makes fun of the “thin privilege” notion and maintains that healthy-weight people have an instinctive natural resistance to the sight of a very overweight individual:

When someone sees a morbidly obese person the reason why they’re staring is not because they’re trying to shame that person. It’s a natural freakout. Your body recognizes…that guy’s gonna die.

Someone who had succeeded in losing a lot of weight wrote about going through a HAES phase when “hunger was driving me mad and I was looking for any excuse to just eat whatever I wanted.” Someone else mentioned the impulse, no doubt left over from a childhood where food was used as a reward, toward “making it up to myself when I do something ‘good’.” A person called “dhyana81” wrote of the fatlogic discussion group:

I first found this thread when I read someone complaining about ‘fat hating’ online…I think people think it’s about hate, but for most of us I think it’s about a concern that comes from somewhere, namely our own struggle with losing weight and our own fat logic.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Unpopular : Can fat acceptance be good sometimes, as a transitional step?,” Reddit.com, 2014
Source: “Joe Rogan Destroys Fat logic,” YouTube.com, 11/05/13
Source: “Since many of us here seem to have lost a fair amount,” reddit.com, 2014
Image by Gwydion M. Williams

Reddit Tackles Fat-Shaming

Four People

Recently, to the astonishment of some and the relief of others, the gigantic Reddit website permanently banned five forums, or subreddits, of which two were devoted to fat-shaming. One of them, r/HamPlanetHatred, had only about 3,000 members while the other, r/FatPeopleHate, boasted nearly 150,000. Caitlin Dewey described them for the Washington Post:

r/HamPlanetHatred
In their own words: “We are a Pro-Health sub! No ifs, buts, or coconuts. With that being said, if you’re a delusional lardmuffin this sub may be a bit offensive.”

Chief offense: Posting pictures of overweight people, frequently from Facebook, Flickr and similar photo-sharing sites, and relentlessly making fun of them in vicious comment threads.

r/FatPeopleHate
In their own words: “Absolutely NO FAT SYMPATHY.”

Chief offense: A clearinghouse for lifted photos of overweight people from around the Web.

When writer and comedian Matt Mira visited with podcast host Alison Rosen, they discussed the subreddits that specialize in hate speech. Rosen, who was a chubby child, says:

This whole thing where people have realized that it’s not healthy to be overweight, I feel like gives this righteous mask to people who just want to hate fat people. They can say all the awful things they want and direct all their judgment at overweight people because they’re doing it for their own good.

You’re fooling most people, but you’re not fooling this former fat girl. If you’re overweight, that’s all people see about you and it informs how they feel about you.

Mira remained obese well into adulthood, and still has some way to go. He believes that the haters are mostly riled up about the “Health at Every Size” movement.

But speaking of the forum where fat-shamers call people hamplanets, and so forth, he says a surprising thing:

Part of me wishes this subreddit had existed and I was made fun of on it when I was like 17. I think that would have been been like a big wakeup call to me.

To many activists on both sides of the fence, these are incendiary words. What is it with people, anyway? Why do they waste any part of their precious lives typing hateful messages into a computer and sending them forth into the world? Here is an example. Talking about health care and taxes, someone named Scott Atlas once wrote an editorial arguing that “obese people have shown poor personal responsibility and therefore should be required to pay more.” The interpretation of Slate.com’s Amanda Marcotte was that Atlas had brought blaming and shaming to new levels by assuming that obesity, like cigarette smoking, is a choice.

Marcotte responded that fully-formed adults seldom make a conscious choice to become obese. More likely, they were overweight or obese as children.

Children aren’t generally recognized in our culture as fully capable decision-makers. It’s widely acknowledged that the responsibility for keeping children from getting obese lies not with the children, but with the parents.

Most fat adults have been highly motivated for most of their lives to lose weight, and yet they can’t do it. The overwhelming scientific research shows that obese adults who diet will lose a bunch of weight and then gain it all back, and usually more.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “These are the 5 subreddits Reddit banned under its game-changing anti-harassment policy — and why it banned them,” WashingtonPost.com, 06/10/15
Source: “ARIYNBF 379 with Matt Mira,” alisonrosen.com, 04/05/15
Source: “Fat People Don’t Need To Be Punished,” Slate.com, 08/03/13
Image by CGP Grey

The Goldilocks Syndrome and The New Normal

Who's been eating MY porridge_

Childhood Obesity News has been discussing how, for some time now, people have been referring to obesity as “the new normal.” This normalization is related to the growth of the “Goldilocks Syndrome.” The term has more than one meaning, but in the context of childhood obesity, it refers to the tendency of parents to perceive their child’s weight as within the normal range, despite evidence to the contrary.

In all such studies, parents are asked some version of the “Goldilocks question.” Do they see their child’s weight as too much, too little, or just right? (Apparently, some researchers also offer “don’t know” as an option.) This is important because if parents do not even recognize that a child is overweight, how can they be willing or motivated to make changes? With such a monumental amount of delusion going on, policymakers and clinicians need to take that factor into account if they are to convince parents of the need for intervention.

The obliviousness of parents has been recognized for a while, and it is getting worse. In 2010, about 70 percent of parents of fat babies and toddlers did not realize that their children were overweight. Only a fraction of them had been alerted by their pediatricians, and if the doctors won’t sound the alarm, who will? But health care workers are only part of the equation, because there is more than one kind of unawareness. There is not knowing, and there is refusal to know.

Parents Don’t Want to Hear Doctors Sounding the Obesity Alarm

Since authorities have started to be more active in trying to warn parents, there has been backlash. Doctors and schools have caught some flak. An offended parent may decide that the answer is not to help the child slim down, but to change doctors. Or change schools, or explore the possibility of suing the school system. The conflict is still in progress, and sometimes looks like a no-win situation. Last year, Cari Romm wrote for The Atlantic:

Past research has also pointed out this glaring parental blind spot: An analysis of 69 separate studies conducted between 1990 and 2012, published earlier this year in Pediatrics, concluded that more than half of all parents underestimate their children’s weight.

Romm suggests that, at least in some places, the dynamic has changed. Again, there is not knowing, and there is refusal to know, which is different without being better. Another study confirmed that even parents who have been tipped off by a doctor about their children’s obesity don’t necessarily worry about it. Romm writes:

The majority of parents, 93.5 percent, correctly recognized that their children were, in fact, overweight or obese—but nearly 30 percent said they didn’t see their children’s weight as a problem, and roughly the same number rated their children’s health as “very good” or “excellent.”

This dissonance, according to pediatrician and lead study author Kyung Rhee, may have to do with what she calls “the normalization of obesity.”

The blindness is also something of a cultural phenomenon, which is nothing new. For some reason, boys are more likely than girls to be perceived as normal weight when they are not. A Goldilocks study in the United Kingdom found that:

Parents were more likely to underestimate a child’s weight if the child was black or South Asian, male, from a deprived background or older (aged 10 to 11 years).

A similar study in America, conducted by NYU’s Langone Medical Center, tracked nearly 7,000 children for at least five years. Impossible as it seems to believe, more than 95 percent of the parents of overweight kids thought they were at just about the right weight. Reminiscent of the British study, African-American and low-income parents were the least likely to realize that their children were obese.

Even the most conscientious and vigilant parents can be caught off guard. Dietician Heather Neal wrote that she and her husband were both at healthy weights when their child was conceived. During pregnancy she ate the right things and stayed inside the recommended weight gain guidelines. Once born, their son was diagnosed with “failure to thrive” but then he started to grow. He ate vegetables and was not given sweets or junk food. Every day of his babyhood included active physical play. It should have been perfect. Neal wrote:

But here we are, almost three years later, with a child officially categorized as “obese”…It was obvious how big he was, but it was refreshing because we could finally feel convinced he was well-nourished and not starving all the time…When you see opposite extremes, it gets hard to distinguish what’s normal and just different.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Study: Many Parents Are In Denial About Their Kids’ Obesity,” TheAtlantic.com, 07/25/14
Source: “_Many parents fail to recognize signs of childhood obesity,” Healio.com, 03/31/15 Source: “’Goldilocks syndrome’ means parents are denial about their overweight children,” Telegraph.co.uk, 05/10/15
Source: “7 Things I’ve Learned from Having an Overweight Toddler,” Babble.com, October 2014
Image by sammydavisdog

Globesity Roundup

Time for a Coke_

We don’t know who invented the term, but globesity has to do with the world-wide problem of obesity, and these days it is indeed a rare corner of the earth that is not affected. Humans always have a great need to compare and rank things, but globesity is not totally amenable to precise knowledge, because various countries start with different definitions, measure differently, define groups differently, rack up statistics differently, and so on.

Still, the World Health Organization tries hard to stay on top of it, and some globesity-related matters are pretty close to universal. For instance, almost every country feels comfortable blaming the United States for exporting sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and fast-food franchises. Our legacy as a nation mainly consists of Coke and McDonalds.

One of Coke’s ongoing contributions is to fund studies about the effects of soda on human beings. In fact, some studies have shown SSBs to be innocent of causing obesity, and while a person would like to be trusting, it is not always easy. Coke is involved with something called ISCOLE, the International Study of Childhood Obesity, which plans to collect data on 500 ten-year-olds in each of 12 countries. Beyond that, it is difficult to determine exactly how long the study will last or precisely what it is trying to find out—it’s something about lifestyle interventions that can be employed cross-culturally “for implementation around the world.”

Hey, ISCOLE, we propose a cross-cultural lifestyle intervention— tell Coke to stop selling its products. Let’s see what that does for the worldwide childhood obesity situation.

How Big is the Obesity Problem?

How many ways can it be stated? Most people in most segments of planet Earth are way too heavy for their own good, or for the good of their countries’ health budgets. As of last year, 904 million people in developing countries were considered to be overweight or obese. The United Kingdom’s Overseas Development Institute calls that number “almost a billion,” which it is. To put it another way, the number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world had just about quadrupled since 1980.

In what are called the developed countries, the percentage of overweight or obese children and teenagers has increased by nearly 50 percent since 1980, and now more than 22 percent of girls and nearly 24 percent of boys are overweight or obese. The U.S. is a world leader, with 5 percent of the planet’s people but 13 percent of its obese inhabitants. China has four times as many people, but even so the U.S. has the highest number of obese adults—78 million.

Typical of Childhood Obesity News posts is “Around the World with Globesity,” which included news from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Jamie Oliver’s hope for the world, and some words about the serious problem of food waste.

Income Disparity and Obesity

The highest obesity rates exist in countries (like the U.S.) where the gap between rich and poor is very wide. Japan is an example of a place where such extreme disparities of income do not exist, and the population there is almost uniformly lean.

Just to make things complicated, in almost every land obesity coexists with hunger. As always, some people don’t have enough and others have too much. In early 2012, the situation was described as one in which 15 percent of the world’s people existed in a state of hunger, while 20 percent were overweight.

But even more strangely, obesity coexists with malnutrition. Plenty of people are getting what seems to be sufficient food, but the quality is so poor that the people who depend on it are not ingesting enough vitamins, minerals, and other worthy ingredients. To be both fat and malnourished is to partake of the worst features of both abundance and scarcity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Image by Beverly Goodwin

 

Overweight/Obesity as the New Normal

Rebecca Lowe Models

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” That saying has been around since before the year 1500. Such proverbs live so long in the human consciousness because they are adaptable to many situations. For instance, a paraphrase could be, “In the land of 300-pound humans, the 200-pounder is a runway model.”

When 12- and 14-pound babies are popping out all over the place, 8-pound babies start looking premature and malnourished. On a playground full of tubby 6th-graders, who can blame parents for not realizing that their own moderately large child is actually overweight? Next to all the other kids who are even bigger, their daughter or son is skinny by comparison.

Last time, Childhood Obesity News  quoted Cleveland Clinic Wellness Manager Kristin Kirkpatrick, who says that the first step in dealing with childhood obesity is for parents to recognize the problem; few actually do. Obesity expert Neville Rigby asks:

As the majority of the population has grown fatter, any sense of normality seems to have disappeared. Is overweight/obese the ‘new normal’ for Americans along with a resigned acceptance of type 2 diabetes as an inevitable rather than avoidable consequence?

Speaking of Type 2 diabetes, one of the most prevalent consequences of obesity, the American Heart Association now estimates the country’s yearly total of weight-related medical expenses to be $190 billion, and yes, that’s billion with a B.

Very recently, JAMA Internal Medicine published a research letter by Dr. Graham A. Colditz and Lin Yang of the Washington University School of Medicine in Missouri. They have determined that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese,  and they say:

Population-based strategies helping to reduce modifiable risk factors such as physical environment interventions, enhancing primary care efforts to prevent and treat obesity, and altering societal norms of behavior are required.

Incidentally, “population-based” seems to be one of those jargon expressions that can be tossed into a text as indiscriminately as pepper on a salad. Risk.com puts it like this:

The term population-based is traditionally used to describe a study that involved a defined “general population,” as opposed to hospital-based or occupation-based populations. Epidemiologic studies have a tacit need to be based in populations, and as such, most epidemiologic studies can be loosely considered as population-based… Readers of epidemiologic literature should be aware that several terms are used idiosyncratically by epidemiologists…The use of the term population-based is a misnomer.

In other words, it means either nothing, or whatever the authors of a given paper decide that it means. At any rate, diving into the finer points of terminology will not change the ever more lumpy and misshapen landscape of a country populated by adults, teenagers, and children whose body expansion is out of control. Dr. Donna H. Ryan of Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center is disappointed that people feel a need to ascribe stereotypical and negative traits to the obese. She says:

It’s a lot like alcohol and drug addiction. Our society is more accepting of these conditions as a disease and less so for obesity.

And, speaking of addiction, in his book The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler told of research in a major American city that showed 50 percent of the obese adults to be food addicted, as well as 30 percent of the overweight adults. Also, of the normal weight adults, 20 percent were food addicted but it just hadn’t manifested as obesity or visibly caught up with them yet.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Over two-thirds of Americans estimated to be overweight, obese,” MedicalNewsToday.com, 06/23/15
Source: “Health Risk Science – Population-based studies,” risk.com.org, undated
Image by Glenn Scofield Williams

Childhood Obesity: Where Parents Go Wrong

Popeye Ed-U-Cards Game

Childhood Obesity News has often offered many suggestions for parents. There is always a certain amount of reluctance involved in doing that, because most parents do the best they can. Telling them about their mistakes feels unkind, and no one wants to cause pain. The temptation is always to frame the ideas in the most positive way, to avoid making parents feel inadequate or guilty. On the other hand, when parents care enough to read articles and posts about childhood obesity, soft-pedaling the truth does them no favors.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, a Wellness Manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, steered a straightforward course by titling a Huffington Post piece “8 Things About You That Increase Your Child’s Risk for Obesity and Unhealthy Eating Habits.” As always, we hope to induce our audience to read and appreciate the entire source article by, like a movie trailer, touching on the high points.

Parents Should Look in the Mirror First

“You’ve got a weight problem” is the first proposition that Kirkpatrick asks parents to consider. Sure, genetic heritage is involved up to a certain point—but a parent who is heavier than she or he genetically needs to be is setting a bad example. If one parent is overweight or obese, a child is 25 to 50 percent more likely to become so. If both parents are overweight or obese, the poor kid’s chance of following in those footsteps goes up to 75 percent.

“You’re a couch potato” is another accusation the author flings—and why not? It’s a case of, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Non-couch potato parents will know it’s not true, and the dart will bounce harmlessly off their armor of active engagement. But a habitual slacker might read those words and, after a momentary pang of reluctant resistance, hear the ring of truth that they carry. Such a parent might resolve to do better, and 30 years from now, there might be one less obese person applying for bariatric surgery.

Parents Should Set a Good Example

“Modeling” is the name of the game, otherwise known as setting a good example. Every baby is born with the prime directive of “monkey see, monkey do.” Every moment of every day, parents are teaching their children how to be human. When a child is very small, parents pretty much represent the entire known universe, so they are the entire faculty of the school of life. Another old saying is, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and a brand new human wants nothing more than to be just like its mommy and daddy. For a very young person, that is the measure of success and happiness.

Babies absorb lessons that will serve them throughout life. “If shampoo gets in my eyes, it hurts”— once learned, never forgotten. “A person is supposed to sit down all day and drink stuff out of bottles and put things in their mouth and stare at a bright screen where pictures move around”—once learned, never forgotten.

A parent is in the business of programming an intricate computer, and an extremely large part of that programming is done unintentionally. Unfortunately, kids don’t just learn what we specifically want them to learn. They don’t see only what we intend for them to see, and they don’t remember exclusively the things we want them to remember.

Parents Should Seize Teachable Moments

Even though spinach tasted weird and contained unpleasantly of gritty sand, a generation of Americans learned that spinach was what gave the cartoon character Popeye a burst of physical strength. Children are naturally curious about everything, and for the mom or dad who is prepared with certain basic facts, “teachable moments” come along fairly often. Kirkpatrick urges parents to nutritionally educate themselves, and to take the opportunity to pass along their knowledge:

Teach your kids about which foods make them strong and which foods make them weak by using words and phrases they’ll understand such as “This salad will help you grow tall,” or “This apple makes mommy’s brain super strong.”

Here is Kirkpatrick’s big takeaway:

Most importantly, if your child already has a weight problem or less-than-perfect eating habits, it’s not too late to help him or her change. The step is recognizing the problem (few parents actually do) and working together with your child to change behavior.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “8 Things About You That Increase Your Child’s Risk for Obesity and Unhealthy Eating Habits
huffingtonpost.com, 02/23/14
Image by Mark Anderson

The Troubled History of the Soda Tax Concept

chart Union of Concerned Scientists

Whenever a threat to their continued profitability arises, the food and beverage industries react. The chart on this page was created by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and it’s the best kind of chart—one whose message can be read from across the room, one so blatantly, cartoonishly obvious it is almost comical. The huge increase in lobbyist spending in 2009, from under $2 million to almost $20 million in one year, was the result of a federal proposal to tax sugar-sweetened beverages. Rebecca Wilce wrote at that time:

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 33 states already have sales tax on soft drinks, but the taxes (mean tax rate 5.2%) “are too small to affect consumption and the revenues are not earmarked for programs related to health.”

That is a problem, because earmarking for health-related problems is what leads people to vote in favor. The desire to impose what some call a “sin tax” is an effort to make the consumers of unhealthful food pay for the medical care they will eventually need. In this realm, SSBs are much easier to go after than solid food products. Liquids are sold in units that are uniform and amenable to measurement. Mainly, the task of definition is somewhat simplified because of the smaller range of possibilities and the relative ease of comparison.

Of course, there is still plenty of room for disagreement. For instance, industry lawyers can argue that orange juice, which is exempt from proposed taxes because of its health benefits, contains as much sugar per ounce as some soft drinks. Still, drawing guidelines for beverages is simpler than, for instance, ruling on an apple pie. Because apples are fruit, and fruit is good, and the government’s nutritional advisors want us to eat more fruit, right?

The Empire State Tries a Sin Tax

Michael Pollan once wrote:

It’s no accident that support for measures such as taxing soda is strongest in places like Massachusetts, where the solvency of the state and its insurance industry depends on figuring out how to reduce the rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

With every passing year, more states feel the pain in their bank accounts, and awaken to awareness that today’s excesses are racking up major financial liabilities for the future. The industry tries to stay out in front the problem, seeking control and unwarranted influence by such means as preemption laws, which limit the ability of local governments to regulate restaurants. In Alabama, Arizona, Florida and Ohio, this was successful.

Early in 2010 the governor of New York State started to talk about taxing SSBs, and New York City’s formidable Mayor Bloomberg favored that goal, but state legislators voted it down. In the city he ran, Bloomberg tried to forbid the serving of soda portions larger than 16 ounces, but the soda business sued the city. In 2013 a judge ruled in favor of the business and against the attempted limitation. A gentleman named Michael Mudd, who had retired a decade earlier from an executive vice president post at Kraft Foods, became something of a whistleblower. Giving the public something to think about, the former industry bigwig wrote:

The executives who run these companies like to say they don’t create demand, they try only to satisfy it. “We’re just giving people what they want. We’re not putting a gun to their heads,” the refrain goes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years, relentless efforts were made to increase the number of “eating occasions” people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.

Bloomberg went on to use his money and influence in more easily persuadable places, and helped Mexico start taxing soda. In the spring of 2015 reporter Dan Goldberg wrote:

Some studies have found only a minimal impact, but a recent survey found a majority of Mexicans say they’re drinking less sugar this year and are also relating soda to health problems, after the country introduced a tax on sweet beverages.

But in the United States, a comparison was made between the annual per capita consumption of soda in 1998 (51 gallons) and in 2013 (44 gallons). Critics pointed out that this had been accomplished without an American soda tax, so why make a law when the desired good effect was already being accomplished through education?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “ALEC and Coca-Cola: A “Classic” Collaboration,” PRWatch.org, 10/12/11
Source: “How Change Is Going to Come in the Food System,” TheNation.com, 09/14/11
Source: “How to Force Ethics on the Food Industry,” NYTimes.com, 03/16/13
Source: “Gillibrand disapproves of soda tax to fight obesity,” CapitalNewYork.com, 03/26/15
Image by Union of Concerned Scientists

Globesity and Tax—Canada

needmassage.com

Canadians in fat suits advertise a massage parlor

The most basic argument for a “fat tax” it is that no matter how a national system is organized, hospitals and medicine cost a lot of money. When the political structure is more on the socialism part of the spectrum, everyone pays for everything—including their neighbors’ bad choices and regrettable habits. Someone who would gladly pitch in to fix a new baby’s cleft palate might not be so ready to shell out for a 500-pound teenager’s bariatric surgery. When these distinctions are discussed, emotions run high.

Even in the most capitalist economy, a case can be made that when people spend their money on medical care, it is no longer available to spend on other things, like houses, cars, appliances, and entertainment. According to this worldview, large segments of the national economy are harmed by being deprived of income they would have otherwise acquired.

In their capacity as taxpayers, or as consumers, people pay a lot for the consequences of obesity, whether their own or others’. So why not tax the substances that cause the problems, and use the revenues to prevent and treat those problems? It sounds obvious enough to be a foregone conclusion. Childhood Obesity News has been looking at various countries where taxation often appears to be a very attractive option for dealing with the obesity epidemic.

Fat Tax in Canada

With no legislative power, a medical association can only speak in favor of what it has decided is a good idea, and then hope that someone listens. In 2012 the Ontario Medical Association publicly advocated high taxes for fat and sugary foods, and lower taxes on more healthful groceries. (The group’s policy paper, “Applying lessons learned from anti-tobacco
campaigns to the prevention of obesity,” is available as a PDF download.)

Any mention of tobacco gives the anti-tax faction something to push back against. They say “tobacco has no place in a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” whereas everyone has to eat food. “So just take your tobacco-tax analogy and go home,” is their attitude. Food and Consumer Products of Canada (read: lobbyists) told the press that Denmark had to give up on its saturated fat tax after a year, the implication being that no “fat tax” could succeed anywhere, ever. As always, and with an empathy saturated with self-interest, the food industry valiantly stuck up for the rights of the lower and middle income citizens.

Helen Branswell of The Star identified other items on the OMA wish list:

For the campaign, it devised images of food products—a serving of french fries from a fast-food restaurant, a pizza box, a juice pack, a carton of chocolate milk—branded with the types of eye-catching images and warnings that have changed the face of cigarette packaging.

The juice box bore a graphic picture of a deep ulcer on the sole of a foot, a problem people with diabetes can face that can lead to amputation. The milk carton was printed with a warning declaring that 500 mL of chocolate milk (the largest individual size sold) contains 360 calories and 12.5 teaspoons of sugar.

The following year, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) published “a comprehensive report…examining the scientific research and real-world experience of food taxes and obesity causes….” The Childhood Obesity Foundation had been making noise about putting a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, so that was the area author Peter Shawn Taylor mainly set out to defend:

Obesity is a complex condition with multiple determinants including social, environmental and biological factors. Taxing particular foods or beverages to reduce obesity is a naive solution to a multi-faceted problem.

More recently, CTF’s Jordan Bateman, employing a classic debating ploy that escalates the issue into a worst-case scenario, alerted the public that taxing soda pop like tobacco “would drive the price of a 12-pack from $5 to $18.” Another of his objections, that might be taken more seriously, is the international shopping problem. An awful lot of Canadians live pretty close to the U.S. border, and have already proven their willingness to make forays into America for better gas prices.

Of course, Homeland Security procedures may soon discourage most border-crossing bargain hunters. But until then, Bateman warns, a Canadian food tax would only enrich American businesses and further injure Canada’s economy. His final argument is very hard to refute, when the other person just doesn’t get it:

More than 96 per cent of Canadians face no elevated risk of mortality due to their weight. That means 96 per cent of us would be paying more in food taxes for no reason… How does unfairly taxing 96 per cent of Canadians encourage “personal responsibility”?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Fight obesity like tobacco, say Ontario doctors,” TheStar.com, 10/23/12
Source: “Opinion: Food taxes didn’t work in Denmark and won’t work here,” VancouverSun.com, 05/22/14
Image by Marc Falardeau

The Fat Tax Debate in Australia

Fat Controller

Childhood Obesity News mentioned how Australia achieved some success in quelling the smoking habit thanks to “plain packaging” (actually festooned with garish photos of horrible medical problems). The effort has certainly garnered attention, and in the United Kingdom, Parliament voted to introduce “uniform packaging for cigarettes” although it is not known whether the wrappings will display verbal warnings alone or frightening visuals as well.

The public is accustomed to hearing food corporations wail in horrified expectation of new laws. Big Food can point backwards to the (in their minds, outrageous) restrictions and taxes that have been placed upon nicotine and cry, “Beware! Next, the government will do the same to us, the innocent manufacturers of delicious, nutritious food!” This plea can be interpreted as blatant self-interest.

Big Food Uses Big Tobacco Arguments

Writing for New Scientist, Marion Nestle pointed out how the tobacco cartel has done sort of a reverse-engineering job on that old familiar argument, fluffing it up to fit current needs. According to Big Tobacco, the packaging issue represents the first stretch of a slippery slope. But it is not their own industry the tobacco moguls are worried about. No self-interest here! In their altruism, they are concerned about a damsel in distress, the poor weak helpless food industry, to whom the tobacco industry is a protective big brother.

If cigarettes must have plain packaging, their thinking goes, the day will soon come when processed food products will suffer the same fate. Comparable measures will be taken against the poor, sadly abused alcohol industry, fast food franchises, and, worst of all, the kingdom of sugar-sweetened beverages. Marion Nestle capsulizes an important feature of the debate:

Let me state from the outset that foods cannot be subject to the same level of regulatory intervention as cigarettes…The health message for tobacco is simple: stop smoking…For food it is much more nuanced. Food is not optional; we must eat to live…The problem is deciding which foods and beverages might call for plain wrappers. For anything but soft drinks and confectionery, the decisions look too vexing.

This describes what Nestle calls “the impossible politics of plain wrappers on foods,” a circumstance that leads health advocates to more willingly accept such compromises as additional warnings on traditional packaging.

Australia may be so willing to experiment because it realizes the serious trouble it is in. One out of four kids in the country is overweight or obese, as are 63 percent of the grownups. Critics say junk food is cheaper and more available than nutritious food of good quality. A couple of years back, the government commissioned a study, specifically designed to include plenty of input from the public, on the feasibility of taxing fat and fast food items. Steve Lewis wrote:

The three-year project—costing $463,442—is considering “the cost-effectiveness and consumer acceptability of taxation strategies to reduce rates of overweight and obesity amongst children in Australia.”

Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association, would like to see healthful food more affordable and fast food prohibitively expensive. In addition to medical skills, he is also something of a spin doctor, and says:

Rather than pitch it as a “fat tax,” it’s more, “How can we cross-subsidize the right foods to make them more affordable?”

In May of this year, the Obesity Coalition announced that its new survey had found that 85 percent of Australians were ready to live with a soda tax, which at 20 percent would make more than $250 million per year. Their approval is contingent upon use of the money for obesity reduction programs, especially to get kids involved in sports and more active in general. Proponents of the tax also vow to install more clean drinking water fountains in public places, a move which is said to have helped reduce soda consumption in Mexico.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “If tobacco gets plain packets will junk food be next?.” NewScientist.com, 03/11/15
Source: “Federal Government backed study into fat tax on fast foods.”AustralianRetail.com.au, 05/21/13
Source: “Eight in 10 Australians want a new tax on sugary soft drinks to tackle childhood obesity.” DailyMail.co.uk, 05/14/15
Image by Ewan Munro

Globesity and Tax in Ireland and Australia

Australia cigarette carton

Yesterday, Childhood Obesity News looked at the United Kingdom, where the idea of taxing junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages has been tossed around but has met with little enthusiasm. Other countries also struggle with these issues, including Ireland and Australia.

Obesity experts from the World Health Organization, fluent in the language of statistics, are able to extrapolate from current trends and make projections about which country will be the most obese in any given year. They have predicted that by 2030, the fattest population will be found in Ireland. Among the Irish, many people in charge of public policy would like to discourage the consumption of sugar, saturated fat, and salt. Naturally, they ask whether a “fat tax” might be the answer.

As usual, opponents claim that implementation of a tax would not affect obesity levels, and would be bad for the economy, because consumers would adapt by organizing shopping expeditions to neighboring areas (mainly England) where no such extra fees are charged.

The Fine Gael political party has pointed out the parallels between tobacco and junk food, and has suggested plain packaging for junk food would eliminate the alluring imagery that pulls children in to a purchase. (Ireland recently passed a law requiring plain tobacco packaging with graphic descriptions of the harm smoking causes.)

The factions arguing against plain snack wrappers complain that it would be more difficult for them to enforce their brands and distinguish their products from those of competitors. In their eagerness to explain why plain wrappers are such a bad idea, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel by warning that it will “make counterfeits easier to produce”—as if a huge underground industry would spring up to flood the market with bogus candy bars in plain wrappers.

It is believed that generic cigarette packs discourage the young, because for them brand identity is part of the magic of smoking. Warnings that list specific diseases are thought to help too. Australia beat Ireland to the punch by printing repulsive photos of medical conditions on cigarette packs.

The first thorough evaluation of Australia’s new style was only completed a few months ago, and was a compilation of 14 different studies. It showed a “statistically significant increase” in the number of people thinking about quitting tobacco, or actually trying to. After plain packaging came in, 7 percent more people made quit attempts, which actually doesn’t sound that impressive. Then again, it’s early days, and every life counts.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Cantillon: Is ‘fat tax’ idea the thin end of the wedge?,” Irishtimes.com, 05/07/15
Source: “Ireland passes plain packaging bill for cigarettes.” Guardian.com, 03/03, 2015
Source: “Australia’s plain packaging laws successful, studies show.” ABC.net.au, 03/18/15
Image by Australian Government Dept. of Health

Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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