Posted on February 27, 2012 by admin
For several years now, every time a new study or political initiative is announced we re-ignite the topic of food bans or taxes to improve public health. Most frequently soda is singled out but the general point of view is that by eliminating a specific ‘unhealthy’ food or class of foods we will exert a meaningful impact on public health.
The popular subtext has been that anyone who does not adopt the party line in vilifying the food industry is somehow ‘in the pocket’ of the food industry. I am a person who is not funded by ‘big food’ as it has been termed (trying to invoke the emotional sentiments attached to ‘big tobacco’ and ‘big pharma’ that have been similarly vilified in our public health language). As such I try to bring some healthy unbiased skepticism into what has become an emotionally charged and primarily political debate.
At the outset I want to clearly state that I believe we would all be healthier if we consumed fewer liquid sugar calories. Of course I feel that as adults it is our job to control the food environment of children and thus I do in fact support providing healthy foods in schools and keeping the junk foods out. I also believe that as adults we would be better off if we consumed fewer and also smaller portions of “calorically fortified foods.” This is a term I use to describe all the manufactured foods that have been modified with extra fats, extra sugars (all types not just high fructose corn syrup – another popular villain in the debate) and extra calories in general. What I take exception to in this debate is what I consider to be a myopic focus on single foods or particular companies or industries, and our collective inability to reconcile seemingly opposing agendas in the service of the public good. We need to understand that companies produce products because people in a free society demand these choices and enjoy consuming them. I am reminded of past attempts to create healthy ‘fast food’ items in the 80’s failing miserably due to low consumer demand. However, after 2 decades of public education about the pitfalls of the unhealthy ‘convenience’ foods we are seeing some success in consumers supporting companies who offer healthier options at affordable prices. This suggests that people are in fact capable of thinking for themselves and deciding what they will or will not eat without the government intervening to force our decisions through punitive means. This is a fine example of free market principles combining with cooperation between the food industry and public health and educational initiatives without resorting to government imposed sanctions to influence food choices.
I am aware of the studies that suggest taxation is effective in changing specific food choices away from the taxed food. There have been some excellent reviews of the science. I am also aware of studies that suggest that banning junk foods in schools improves kid’s weight. Unfortunately there are other studies that imply just the opposite. As our informed members of the public are quick to point out, the ‘scientists’ appear to be able to argue whichever point of view they favor reasonably well using studies to support their argument. This leaves the public both skeptical and disillusioned and worse yet; ignoring us claiming we keep contradicting ourselves. We as scientists know that this is how science works; especially in areas like this that have so many facets. Conflicting data leads to more studies and over time we tease apart the nuances and come up with a trend in what these studies find consistently that would suggest an answer. In this age of information, unfortunately every study gets reported as fact and in our fervor to ‘win’ the debate we fuel the media fires with grand public stands and finger pointing that often only serves our private agendas as opposed to the public good.
Rather than continue this horribly unproductive cycle in my opinion we need to stop trying to win the debate and focus more clearly on winning the fight with our true enemy; obesity. We need to work together with the food industry not vilify them. Combine our intellectual resources. Assist them in developing healthy initiatives that serve both the public good and their need for profitability. Enlist their support in educating the public about healthier options and empowering people to control their own food destiny. Believe me, if we help companies to realize financial benefits for their shareholders while also benefiting the health of the consumer, we will create a sustainable public health initiative. Right now it seems that we have spent the last several decades wasting time and effort in adversarial rhetoric and blame. We take every opportunity to blame and distrust the food industry and at times they us. Often times those who reach out and try to work with the food industry to better understand issues affecting the public health are accused of the equivalent of treason by their peers. Rather than exert time, money and effort on yet another ineffective, large-scale government regulatory or taxation program and the extensive bureaucracy needed to deliver it, why not pour all our resources into finding cooperative solutions. Solutions that reward industry for positive contributions they try to make to educational and scientific programs. Approach the matter with an open mind without assuming that if industry funds something positive that ultimately they are engaging in coercion and trickery. The scientific community and industry do not have to be at odds with each other in the war on obesity.
In summary, while I think that we clearly need to consider fresh approaches to the obesity epidemic, perhaps targeting one food or class of foods among many that are damaging to our health with a reactionary taxation or food banning approach may not be ideal. Approaches that attempt to assign blame in the interest of the public good appear not to be working. Perhaps we should be considering a more comprehensive cooperative approach that partners scientists, government and industry united to achieve a single outcome; eliminating obesity as a public health issue. We collectively have vast intellectual and logistic resources. We have knowledge that if applied cooperatively may lead to solutions that meet the needs of all parties.
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