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You might not be a big fan of New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he was on to something when he tried to limit the size of soft drink containers. The stuff that’s in there is both terribly unhealthy, and delightfully addictive.
Let’s face it: we do have an obesity problem. The World Health Organization has identified obesity and being overweight as the fifth-leading cause of death worldwide. The cost to our economy comes in at a whopping $4.6 billion to $7.1 billion every year.
Academics love to argue about the question of whether obesity is a disease or – for most people – just a result of an unhealthy lifestyle. There are also legitimate arguments to be had about the question of what constitutes “unhealthy” obesity. It turns out that being a tad bit overweight might actually confer a survival benefit to those of us who are in my age bracket and older. However, it is beyond reasonable doubt that people who are significantly overweight run a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and a host of other serious and expensive-to-treat medical conditions.
If you look at the comments sections under newspaper articles focusing on the growing obesity problem, you will find out quickly that there are plenty of weight Nazis among us. “Charge them by weight when they board planes so that the really big ones sit in the business class section and don’t squeeze me out of my seat in the back of the bus,” “make them feel crappy about how out-of-shape they look,” and any number of other punitive or stigmatizing proposals are generously bandied around by those of us who typically are at the lighter end of the weight scale.
Then there is the well-meaning type on the back of packages telling us everything we actually don’t want to know about carbs, salt content and whatnot. Frankly, I doubt that they have any significant impact on most people’s purchasing decisions.
A lot of obesity research that is undertaken discovers, to some extent, the obvious: kids who are subjected to junk food by their parents grow bigger faster than kids who are not subjected to junk food. Kids who experience a sedentary lifestyle courtesy of their parents’ way of life are more likely to live like their parents do, with predictable outcomes in terms of their girth.
Of course, public health people are quick to come up with their own predictable suggestions: nudge kids into the right behaviour, offer healthy foods in school, etc. It’s not that we aren’t trying, it’s just that we haven’t been terribly successful while at it.
There have also been more strident suggestions, such as stigmatizing big people as we stigmatize (well, ostracize) smokers. To be fair, the combination of high taxes, public health information on the effects of smoking on our life expectancy and stigmatization of cigarette use has worked. The number of smokers in Canada is significantly down from what it was 15 or 20 years ago. The same isn’t as straightforward for our eating habits, unfortunately. There are some parallels, though.
Believe it or not, but a lot of the stuff that we eat has been designed specifically to make us addicted to it. They have gone so far as to ensure that we crave more after we have had our fair share already, thereby increasing sales and wrecking our health in the medium- to long term.
Billions of food industry research and development dollars go into ensuring the addictive nature of the unhealthy foods that we eat. The research efforts include the right combination of that terrible trio of sugar, salt and fat, the consistency of the food while it melts in our mouths, the sounds the food makes when we eat it, the packaging, and who knows what else.
You might assume that a baker would the one to determine how the cookies you buy in the supermarket look, taste and feel. Think again. The cookies were likely created by highly sophisticated chemists, aided by psychologists or neuroscientists, all colluding to ensure that we eat many more of those cookies than we otherwise would if the baker down the road had created them. All this is an attempt to ensure that we come back for more once we are hooked on them.
You would think a government response that forces companies to include data on the amount of addictive content that they put into our foods would properly prevent us from making obviously bad choices, but the evidence suggests otherwise. We know it is bad, but we cannot quite help it because we are hooked already, courtesy of the refined product and marketing research and development that food manufacturers engage in.
The food labelling activity makes typically liberal assumptions whereby an autonomous individual makes informed choices about what is best for them. The thing is, many of us do not make informed choices - a situation not unique to food. Worse, many of us make choices that actually are comparable to those of other addicts. As with other addicts, the products we are addicted to are objectively not good for us.
We have little choice, of course, other than to purchase a significant amount of processed foods. What is problematic is that food producers are currently permitted to deliberately create addictive foods that are objectively bad for us and there is no warning label about that on the packages. There are no gruesome photos of obese people unable to move their bodies without assistance, or other physiological manifestations of obesity.
Worse, the nature of an economic system where more is always better forces companies to compete against each other by making us eat more than we should, and eat more unhealthy products than we should.
Typically, solutions to this issue are individualized. (“Eat responsibly?” Nice try!) Then there is plenty of talk about voluntary, public-private partnerships (the food industry cannot possibly be “responsible,” because producing healthy foods would reduce its sales and profits), and, last but not least, it has been suggested that we should levy taxes on unhealthy foods that are commensurate with the health care costs they cause.
Some of these features ignore that the poorest among us are also much more likely to be obese. Sadly, this is especially true for Canada’s aboriginal peoples. They also happen to be frequently stuck in so-called “food deserts” where access to healthy foods is hard to come by.
Isn’t it high time our regulators had a serious look at the food-producing industry with a view to regulating it in much in the same way that cigarette manufacturers are regulated? Considering the cost to our health and economy of so many of our food products, why not tax them as we tax cigarettes? That might be a good start! Just make sure that the money generated that way is diverted right back toward subsidizing healthy foods.
Udo Schuklenk is a Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy at Queen’s University. He’s on twitter @schuklenk