Well, in case we needed one, George Bush and his cronies in the food industry have given us yet another outrage to ‘digest.’ The World Health Organization is circulating a draft plan to combat the growing worldwide epidemic of obesity.
Fat? It’s your own damn fault!
Pretty vanilla stuff, right? How can anyone be in favor of obesity, right? Well, you didn’t stop to think how many tens of billions of dollars certain companies haul in every year due to the human need (or gluttony depending on your point of view) to stuff our faces.
As they have so many times before, the Bush Adminstration has held up a stop sign in the face of a growing international consensus that this human plague must be addressed and prevented now. First, it was the Kyoto Climate Change treaty, now it’s obesity. What will it be next? We’re opposed to an international treaty to combat domestic abuse because the victims brought on their own suffering?
There are several aspects to the food flacks’ arguments:
1. Food doesn’t cause obesity, people’s bad habits do.
2. There is little or no hard scientific evidence that a diet high in sugar or fat induces obesity.
Each of these arguments is patently ridiculous. But that doesn’t stop the people at Kraft or in the White House. They believe that if they speak loudly and often enough (and spend enough on constant public relations flackery like ads), people will come to believe. And I’m sorry to say that just enough people might fall into their trap to cause this campaign to come unglued (at least here in the U.S.).
Here’s further background on the controversy from the Chicago Tribune‘s, U.S. sets off furor in anti-obesity fight:
The WHO plan lays out policy recommendations that nations could adopt to stem a rising tide of obesity. Some 300 million people are thought to be obese worldwide.
The WHO seeks to create an international blueprint for promoting healthy lifestyles and reducing the costs of chronic diseases related to obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes.
It suggests nations advise people to limit sugar and refined foods, restrict junk food marketing, improve food labeling and raise prices on unhealthy foods.
“People are appalled and, frankly, extremely dismayed,” Neville Rigby, director of policy for the London-based International Obesity Task Force.
Rigby and others suggest that U.S. criticism of the plan is driven by the sugar industry, grocers and other U.S. multinational food companies that want to forestall emerging international efforts to regulate food marketing, pricing, production and trade.
The U.S. position came to light in a Jan. 5 letter by William Steiger, special assistant for international affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, to Dr. J.W. Lee, director general of the WHO.
Here is the heart of the U.S. position opposing the WHO initiative:
Rigorous scientific studies do not clearly show that marketing fast foods or high calorie foods to consumers increases their risk of becoming obese. Nor do scientific studies definitively link particular foods, such as soft drinks or juices, or foods high in fat or sugar, to a higher risk of obesity.
Evidence does not support the conclusion that TV advertising for food can be tied to rising rates of childhood obesity, the letter asserted.
On Friday, Steiger told the Washington Post the U.S. would demand significant changes to the WHO obesity initiative based on the concerns outlined in his letter. The U.S. wants to see more emphasis on the role of “personal responsibility” for obesity and less emphasis on government regulation, Steiger said.
There you have it: if you’re fat it’s your own damn fault, not the fault of those multinationals spending billions to promote the latest junk food product.
This reminds me of an annoying habit of right-wing, pro-big business ideologues. Their view of the world and of human beings is fully Darwinian. The poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty. They’re just lazy and don’t want to work. Darwin may work well to explain human evolution, but the workings of human society are different. Civilization implies a common bond between human beings. It implies that we have some responsibiity for each other’s welfare. If this were not so, then human beings would never have created complex social order and societies as they have.
This attitude also reminds me of past views of alcoholism: you could stop drinking if you really wanted to. Since you don’t, it must mean you really want to be an alcoholic and I can wash my hands of you. Addiction, in this view, is not a health issue, but a moral one. If you choose to do evil, you suffer the consequences and society owes you no consideration.
International public health experts are not taking the U.S. opposition lying down:
Kaare Norum, WHO’s senior scientist leading the anti-obesity effort, sent an angry letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson charging that the U.S. was putting business interests above public health.
“I am deeply concerned about the course the U.S. is pursuing. I am very disappointed and very astonished,” said Norum.
“I hope the U.S. will stand alone and the [WHO] strategy will go ahead,” said Norum, a professor at the Institute for Nutrition Research at the University of Oslo.
Dr. Walter Tsou, president-elect of the American Public Health Association, said the WHO’s emphasis on encouraging people to eat less processed food laden with fat and sugar and more fruits and vegetables is exactly what U.S. consumers are being told.
“Any mother with any common sense knows that you don’t feed your kids cookies and ice cream every day unless you want to see them gain weight,” he said. “This appears on its surface like what happened with tobacco: an attempt to raise scientific questions to draw attention away from actions that could stem an escalating public health problem.”
Several critics of the U.S. position noted its similarity to industry statements over the past year opposing the WHO’s obesity initiative.
For instance, at a meeting last May, Mari Stull, a top official at Grocery Manufacturers of America, called the WHO report “troubling” because it “severely understates the role of the individual in managing his or her diet and weight, while it overstates the role government could or should play.”
So there you have it. More evidence (if you even needed it) to cement the Republican party’s whoring relationship with American big business. Pay me enough and I’ll do your bidding till the cows come home.
If you ever eat a Big Mac or a Coke, let those companies know that they’re on the wrong side of this issue. If enough consumers took an interest in this issue and let their thoughts be known, the multinationals would have no choice but to tone down their opposition (thereby toning down Bush Administration efforts to block an accord). On the other hand, if big business and the Republicans remain intransigent it gives the Democratic presidential candidate a great issue on a silver platter. I hope they take that platter and batter their heads with it till they draw political blood. Oooh, I’m sorry am I being too angry? Pretty soon they’ll be saying that Howard Dean writes this blog.
Ron Bell says
Hi! Great blog. 🙂
A few thoughts:
Do people have any responsibility for what they eat? If so, where does the line between corporate and personal responsibility get drawn?
Are you arguing that some segment of the population is biologically compelled to consume high fat, high sugar foods? What evidence supports the proposition that high calorie food is “addictive” and that people can’t help consuming it?
Richard Silverstein says
Yes, people have responsibility for what they eat.
But if fast food companies spend $500M or $1B ea. yr. (I don’t know the precise amount, but I’m certain that it’s devestatingly high) advertising to the American people (& the world) that they should eat foods that will eventually kill them if they eat enough of it…well, then the lion’s share of the blame is on the companies for marketing a potenially lethal product. Can you imagine Kraft or McDonald’s telling their customers to eat a modest amount of their products so they don’t die of obesity? That would be a sight to behold.
I think a very good case can be made that once you accustom yourself to eating a diet very high in sugar and fat that it is very difficult to switch to a low sugar/low fat diet. Food that is better for you (i.e. less sugar & fat) tends to taste bland & you want to eat the high fat/high sugar diet. That’s not precisely a definition of addiction, but it’s pretty close. Also, once you’re consuming a high calorie daily diet it’s also very hard to switch to a lower calorie diet. Hence, obesity & eventually death.
Ron Bell says
But lots of perfectly innocuous foods–carrots and water, for example–are dangerous when consumed in massive quantities. A little fast food here and there won’t cause long term harm to most of us so I don’t think it’s clear that corporations who sell fast food should necessarily be pilloried for marketing potentially lethal products, any more than Julia Childs should be prosecuted for writing books that include recipes with too much butter in them.
Having said that, I do agree that corporations have little incentive to disclose the fat, sugar, and transfat content of foods they sell or to encourage moderation in diet. Government can and should do more to promote both so consumers can make informed choices and should act where the content or preparation of food presents a clear danger to public health.
We disagree about where to draw that line, but we share a belief that any administration willing to trade public welfare to curry corporate favor is one we can do without!
Richard Silverstein says
YOur first examples of carrots & water as potentially lethal foods seems preposterous. I’ve never ever heard of a person dying from drinking too much water or carrots. But there are tens of thousands of people around the world dying every year either directly from obesity or from closely related conditions like heart disease, hypertension, etc.
I don’t have any problem with someone eating “a little fast food here and there.” But that’s not the habit of most obese individuals and it’s certainly not the habit that fast food marketing is trying to inculcate in consumers. People consume massive quantities of fast food & the TV ads encourage them to eat as much of it as they can as often as they can.
Your Julia Childs example is also ludicrous. Julia Childs specializes in French cuisine which uses butter. Neither you, nor I nor Julia Childs eats as much rich French food as obese individuals eat fast food. If we ate heavy, rich French meals every night for ten yrs., then hell yeah, we might become obese. But what’s the likelihood of that happening??
I believe that the Government should not only encourage people to eat a better diet, they should also create regulations forcing the fast food companies to disclose how much fat & sugar their products contain and how much more fat & sugar they contain than a healthy set of food choices. Let’s put the equivalent of a big bold cigarette pack warning on every Happy Meal that goes out of a McDonald’s kitchen.