Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Junk 'Food' Wars Continue

Belatedly policy makers have woken up to the fact that the largest disease burden in the world is caused by chronic diseases. They have begun to zoom in on 'food' products known to contribute to obesity. The thing about obesity is that it is linked to a whole gaggle of expensive-to-treat diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and so on and so forth. It is also linked to lower life expectancy and other such niceties. It turns out, soft drinks are a known significant contributor to obesity. Politicians such as New York City's mayor Michael Bloomberg have come up with a plan to reduce the maximum size of the containers that soft drink products are delivered in. They clearly hope that that might reduce soft drink consumption, to some extent at least. Public health experts have lauded Bloomberg's initiative. Others have suggested limiting advertisements for such products to times when children and teenagers ain't watching TV any longer.

When you think about it, Bloomberg's policy proposition isn't that different to what we do with regard to other known health hazards such as smoking and alcohol. If anything his policies are probably not far reaching enough. However, it is reassuring that voluntariness on part of the soft drink producing industry isn't relied on any longer. It cannot possibly deliver the required results, simply because these companies must be interested to sell as much of their products as is feasible in order to satisfy their owners' (ie their shareholders) financial interests, lest they will be punished by the financial markets.

Here are some fun facts related to the issue, 'Several studies have shown that the rate of type-2 diabetes has soared at just the same rate as intake of high-fructose corn syrup -- the favored sweetener in many soft drinks -- has risen. Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola were sold in 6.5-ounce bottles in the 1920s. Now the 12-ounce can is standard but fountain drinks are sold in sizes up to 64 ounces -- or the equivalent of eight of these cans of soda. One 64-ounce drink carries more than 800 calories.'

Well, yesterday Bloomberg's new regulations for New York City were halted in their tracks in court. Nothing new on that front either, cigarette companies also dragged the inevitable out by means of seemingly never-ending court proceedings. Even the arguments deployed during the cigarette wars and those deployed now are eerily similar. One would hope Bloomberg and - more importantly - his successor will keep their nerves on this. I saw Bloomberg last night on the Letterman show (yep, guilty as charged, I watch the Late Show) and he mentioned some staggering figure like 5,000 New Yorkers die every year as a result of obesity related complications. The cost of treating - just in that city - obese people's avoidable health problems reaches multi billion $$ each year.

Here comes the inevitably Onion style response from US Republicans. NPR reported that in Mississippi, a state where 1 out of every 3 adults is about 30 pounds (!) heavier than what would be a healthy weight, state Republicans are moving to legislate that counties and towns must not enact rules like those proposed by Michael Bloomberg, including rules that require calorie counts of meals and drinks to be posted, that cap portion sizes, or that keep toys out of kids' meals. It goes without saying that the restaurant, beverage and chicken producing industry was behind this initiative. Which arguably supports again the point that it ain't public-private partnerships and voluntary industry action that is called for, but government regulation. That industry should lobby to withhold basic information from its customers, in order to prevent them from making informed choices at least about the food products they digest, tells you truly all that you need to know.

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