A panel hosted by the Wall Street Journal with some experts - I'm a fan of Brian Wansink and Marion Nestle. Lots of thorny issues and a very serious problem that hits all of us in the wallet.
Here is the transcript
(hat tip to Cindi)
on the opening question
WSJ: What role should government play in addressing the obesity epidemic?
DR. NESTLE: The government is up to its ears in policies that promote obesity. To name only a handful: supporting production of food commodities, but not of fruits and vegetables; permitting food and beverage companies to deduct marketing expenses from taxes; permitting SNAP benefits [food stamps] to be used on any food, thereby encouraging food companies to market directly to low-income groups.
Research on the prevalence of obesity shows that after decades of remaining at the same level, it began to increase sharply in the early 1980s. Our sense of personal responsibility did not change then. What did change was the food environment, transformed by food industry imperatives to increase sales, to one that increasingly urged people to "eat more" by making it socially acceptable to eat anywhere, anytime, and in very large amounts. In this kind of food environment, all but the most mindful eaters overeat. Few of us are in that category.
The food, beverage and restaurant industries collectively spend roughly $16 billion a year to promote sales through advertising agencies, perhaps $2 billion of that targeted at children. Marketing to children is well established to encourage kids to want advertised products, pester their parents for them, and believe that those products are what they are supposed to be eating. The "I am responsible" argument does not work for children (I'm not aware of evidence that it works well for adults either). Because regular consumption of junk foods and sugary drinks is linked to obesity in children, marketing these products to them is overtly unethical.
To expect food and beverage companies, whose sole purpose is to increase sales and report growth in sales every quarter, to voluntarily stop marketing to children makes no sense. On ethical grounds alone, government intervention is essential.
Given the personal and economic costs of obesity—currently estimated at $190 billion a year—governments have many reasons to promote the health of their populations. Just ask the military.
MR. TANNER: To argue that the government can control what I eat, and presumably other health-related activities, because it may have some future need for my military service is to assume that the state has some sort of pre-existing claim on me. But one of the foundational principles of a free society is self-ownership.
If the state is going to abrogate that self-ownership, the burden is on it to show both that its goals are necessary and that they cannot be achieved in any other way. To claim otherwise is to give the state all manner of control over our lives—indeed to reduce us to little more than functionaries of the state. For example, the state might have a proper claim to limit my behavior if that behavior directly harms someone else. But my drinking a Big Gulp or eating fried food harms no one but myself.
There should be no doubt that many government policies contribute to the obesity epidemic in this country. The federal government subsidizes sugar farmers to the tune of as much as $2 billion per year. By some measures, sugar is the most heavily subsidized of all U.S. crops. The government also subsidizes corn, much of which ends up as high-fructose corn syrup. That the federal government would actually use taxpayers' money to make unhealthy food cheaper and more plentiful is the height of absurdity.
But government subsidizing something is not the same, practically or morally, as failing to prohibit an activity.
Should the government ban sky diving or surfing? Home drowning accounts for 800 deaths every year. Why not a hefty new tax on home swimming pools?
DR. WANSINK: When it comes to food, people don't behave like we expect. Will low-fat foods cause people to eat less? Our studies showed Chicagoans compensated by eating 28% more. Will soft-drink taxes cause people to buy less soft drinks? Our "From Coke to Coors" study in Utica, N.Y., supermarkets showed that beer-drinking households responded to a six-month soft drink tax by buying more beer.
When my Cornell Food and Brand Lab runs an unsuccessful research study, we can change it in a week. When a food company launches an unsuccessful new product or campaign, they can change it in a quarter. When a government passes an unsuccessful law, it often sticks around until it has done more damage than we can stand. As any student of organized crime would tell us, Prohibition stuck around for 12 years.
The biggest disservice that public health has ever done to Americans is to make them believe that they and their kids were fat because the schools, the food companies, the fast-food restaurants and the government made them that way. It stripped people of their hope and empowerment, and it left them resigned to never try anything other than an occasional "Lose 40 Pounds in a Week Turnip Diet."
What government can do is to give people hope and to give them the tools to make it happen.
A responsible government would show how parents could help preschoolers get over their food funks, how breast-feeding moms should eat, how a stressed-out parent of three can make a healthy meal after a 10-hour day. They wouldn't obsess about taxing Pepsi and Coke and penalizing lower-income citizens; they would instead show parents how to get milk or tap water back on the dinner table instead.