Yes, it’s the Childhood Obesity Perfect Storm… again. What — did you think it was over just because we have reported on it so relentlessly? If only! No, the sad fact is, we’re still in the midst of the tempest. The “perfect storm” is an appropriate figure of speech for what happens when circumstances converge. One of these circumstances alone might not have been enough to affect the overall health and wellbeing of our children in such a monumental way. But when they pile up, as they have done — look out!
For instance, check out this clip from the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” show on the theme of snack food tech. It starts with a 13-pound Tootsie Roll (and if you’re thinking, “Mmmmmmm… 13-pound Tootsie Roll!,” please seek professional help immediately.) This monstrosity slithers along the conveyor belt to be chopped up into little Tootsie Rolls. The point here is not to knock the product, which is essentially no better or worse than a thousand other similar products. The point is, the production of more than 60 million Tootsie Rolls per day would be meaningless if not for the other facts, namely, that they are advertised and consumed. Without somebody to eat them, all those chewy treats would just pile up on the loading dock, with no place to go.
But there is advertising, and plenty of it, everywhere, pouring into the eyes and ears of our kids, all day long, every day, in amounts so overwhelming that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently considered the problem. Anter Prakash Singh, who writes for several online publications, reported on a startling fact announced by Dr. Tim Armstrong after a series of WHO Executive Board meetings.
When we think of premature deaths in developing and underdeveloped nations, words like “malaria,” “AIDS,” and “cholera” come to mind. But those are communicable diseases. The surprising statement made by Armstrong indicates that communicable diseases only account for 10% of those premature deaths, while the vast majority, 90%, result from non-communicable diseases. These include diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. Obesity has been implicated in causing, complicating, or being somehow connected with a great number of non-communicable diseases. And junk food has been implicated in causing, complicating, or being somehow connected with obesity.
Now, consider that there are around 42 million children worldwide (in this context, newborns to five-year-olds) who are obese. No wonder WHO is concerned! The organization has been asked to come up with recommendations for the U.N. General Assembly, which will meet in September.
So, marketing is another element of the Perfect Storm — which alone would not be harmful. Because if ersatz foods were advertised but not available, or available but not eaten, no harm would be done.
But thousands of types of candy and snack food are available. (Taquitos.net, “The Crunchiest Site on the Interweb,” joyously and shamelessly reviews 4,803 different snacks.) Pseudo-food with minimal nutritional value is obtainable for any child with money to spend, or any child with access to an adult with money to spend, and it’s everywhere. So there’s another element of the Perfect Storm, the pervasive presence of convenience stores and vending machines and all the other outlets for candy and snacks. The presence of highly palatable, hedonic foods is pretty much inescapable.
But, even so, all the manufacturing, advertising, and availability in the world would not be harmful, either, unless there was a demand for the stuff. And, oh boy, there is. Conversely, all the demand in the world would be harmless too — if there were no product available to satisfy it. So, none of these things by themselves would be a problem, existing in isolation. The nature of the world today is that they all do exist, together, combining into that Perfect Storm.
So, what can be done about manufacturing? Not much. The government can make laws about the purity of ingredients, but, hey, pure sugar is still sugar! The government can insist on accurate labeling, but if the consumer doesn’t read the label or understand its implications, or doesn’t care to, it’s an exercise in futility. Advertising can be influenced and controlled to a certain extent through government action, but that battle is being fought on so many fronts and with so many different weapons, we wouldn’t count on much difference being made there. For instance, a law can be passed to forbid something from being advertised on TV before 8 PM, but then, what about kids whose parents let them stay up till midnight?
Same thing with selling. About the only place where the government really has any clout is in the schools, and that is being worked on. Many dedicated parents and nutritionists and legislators are trying their best to keep junk food out of schools. But we can’t keep it out of all the millions of retail outlets across the country. We can’t stop it from being given to the kids by nice Aunt Kitty when she babysits, or by the neighbors on Halloween, or by the coach after soccer practice. Except for a few isolated and single-purpose communities that we would not otherwise wish to be part of, there is no way to forcibly protect our kids from becoming junk-food junkies.
There is only one limb of the Perfect Storm that is vulnerable to influence, and that is demand. Manufacturing, advertising, and selling can scarcely be dented. All that is left to us is to decrease the demand. And, of course, we will be talking about that next.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Modern Marvels– Snack Food Tech,” YouTube.com
Source: “WHO slams junk food advertising to check child obesity,” The Money Times, 01/22/11
Image by Keo 101, used under its Creative Commons license.