Government’s Role in Childhood Obesity

Food BasicsGovernment on every level can do a lot of things, no question about it. The hot discussion should be over what the government should do. Whatever the government is already doing, is it having any effect? Should more of it be done, or less? What unintended consequences have resulted from government’s efforts so far? When the law attempts to dictate personal behavior, would the backlash make the problem worse? How far into private life does concern about public health legitimately extend?

One of the reasons we want to end obesity is because it’s expensive. But there was something in the news recently, where a blogger named John Sexton said the opposite. He said, actually, that obesity doesn’t increase medical spending overall. While obesity-related diseases may cost a lot when the obese people are alive, they die younger, and end up costing the health care system less. Sexton even cited a study to back it up. The potential for debate on these matters is seemingly endless.

Back in July, Hugh Collins reported for AOL News on the eagerness of Marco Wanderwitz, a member of the German parliament, to charge extra taxes for hedonic, highly palatable foods. About one German in five can qualify as obese, and obesity-related illnesses cost the country about $20 billion a year. Wanderwitz is quoted as saying,

I think that it would be sensible if those who deliberately lead unhealthy lives would be held financially accountable for that.

In agreement with him was Jurgen Wasem, a health economist in favor of putting an extra-high tax on junk food. Reportedly, the teachers’ association came out in favor of weighing school kids daily, which seems a bit of an overreaction.

On the topic of overreaction, columnist Drew Kaplan responded to Wanderwitz and company by equating such ideas as the requirement for accurate labeling on food items to the totalitarianism of Adolf Hitler. In the United Kingdom, a blogger calling himself Salis Grano first established his general approval of the National Health Service, then went on to say,

On the assumption that the NHS is here to stay, however, I do find as a taxpayer that certain things follow. The main one being that I do not want to pay for other people’s preventable illnesses… I don’t smoke, but I don’t begrudge smokers getting NHS treatment for lung cancer, cardiovascular disease etc., because studies show that they effectively subsidize the costs of their healthcare (and that of non-smokers too) through the tobacco tax.

Consequently, Salis Grano believes that fat and sugar should be subject to a “pre-paid” tax, to offset the price of their medical care. This is a point where debate can arise again. There is solid evidence that fat in the diet isn’t really a cause of obesity, and in fact the elimination of fat can lead to even more obesity.

As a means of combating the childhood obesity epidemic, Dr. Pretlow tends to be in favor of taxing junk food and fast food, as he discusses in Overweight: What Kids Say. Is it possible that fear of such a tax could convince the food industry to decrease the amounts of harmful obesogens in their products?

Back in May of this year, Mary Clare Jalonick reported via the Associated Press that a coalition had formed, made up of food and beverage corporations, food retailers, restaurant chains, and trade associations connected to the food industry. First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, sharing her concerns about childhood obesity. The coalition members became concerned too.

Mainly they were concerned that national and local governments would raise food taxes as an anti-obesity measure, and enact some other new rules to make things uncomfortable for them. So they promised to be good. It’s a “CEO-led partnership,” and we know how good CEOs can be. The HWCF issued a rather wimpy mission statement, vowing to “try to help reduce obesity — especially childhood obesity — by 2015.” Frankly, this sounds like the most ridiculous claim ever made, but the HWCF promised to:

[… ] take 1.5 trillion calories out of their products by 2015 in an effort to reduce childhood obesity. That equals about 12.5 calories per person per day.

Imagine the logistics involved in allocating responsibility to all these different manufacturers, chain stores, marketers, canneries, and candy makers, for their individual obligations, so they can each do their part in order to arrive the exclusion of a total of 1.5 trillion calories from the stuff they make. Then, each time a new partner joined, the math would need to be done again. It must be very busy over at the HWCF:

The industry foundation said the companies will introduce lower-calorie foods, change product recipes and reduce portion sizes to achieve the goal…

Three questions. Why does it take until 2012 to stop putting so much sugar in the food? To change the recipes, this will take until 2012? And when the portion sizes are reduced, will the price to the consumer be reduced too?

Only a few days ago, the HWCF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with United Way Worldwide so they can work together on ending childhood obesity. The memorandum’s purpose is to “provide a framework for cooperation.” This is glacially slow progress.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Latest Attack On Michelle Obama’s Anti-Obesity Efforts: Obese People Cheaper Because They Die Younger,” Media Matters, 12/20/10
Source: “Germany Weighs Tax on the Obese,” AOL News, 07/23/10
Source: “It seems Germany is rereading Hitlers socialist program as they now want to tax overweight citizens and forcefully remove fat kids from class,”, 07/24/10
Source: “Fat Tax? Fat Chance,” A Grain of Salt, 11/17/10
Source: “Food companies promise they’ll cut calories,”, 05/19/10
Source: “Promoting Healthier Communities: United Way, Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation to Work Together to Promote Healthy Lifestyles,”, 12/16/10
Image by ewan traveler, used under its Creative Commons license.

2 Responses

  1. Dear Ms Hartman,
    I have been following all of your articles and believe they are all informative . Parents need to start fighting obesity before it occurs. The only way that this can happen is if parents or caregivers are educated about what is healthy and what is not. Many educated people have started stressing healthy foods when their children are very young. Unfortunately, most of the world does not make the right food choices when there is food available. In recent years people have begun to realize how poor sugary drinks are for their youngsters. Many families have cut down on juices and eliminated sodas from their diets. This is just the beginning.. Many women take parenting courses before their children are born. How about adding a segment in the classes about healthy eating for children before the babies are born. Women who are “fit” are aware of healthy foods and the importance of exercise. This is not the majority of the world. Once the child is obese, it is harder to curb their desire for sugar.
    Start early and continue pounding the information into our population. Look how long it took the American people to realize cigarettes were bad for you.
    Thank you,
    Elyse Schneiderman,Ph.D

    1. “…most of the world does not make the right food choices when there is food available.” How true, and depending on how strongly we feel about that, it leads into the whole “Nanny State” debate, over who should be in charge of making those choices for people. Schools are totally justified in serving the most healthful chow they can manage to whip up, and totally justified in tossing out the junk food vending machines.

      On the other hand, regulation can go too far. I wrote a piece of speculative fiction once (this seemed totally absurd at the time, and indeed science-fictional) in which a mother is arrested for procuring one black-market cupcake for her child’s birthday. (The candle is a separate count — paraphernalia.)

      On the third hand, it’s really a shame that more mothers-to-be do not understand what they might be doing to their babies, or what they could be doing better. Medical science used to be certain that the placenta was an iron curtain, behind which nothing could touch the fetus. That was the received wisdom, but it turned out to be a myth, and a very hard one to get rid of.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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