For you Americans who don’t get a chance to read journalistic bias from other countries, here’s a clipping from the Toronto Metro (wholly owned and printed by the Toronto Star):
The U.S. spent $75 billion last year to treat health problems caused by obesity, but yesterday stalled a global plan to fight the epidemic.
Obesity, which increases the likelihood of various health woes, has become twice as common in the U.S. since 1980, according to a study. Two-thirds of American adults are overweight.
Despite that, the U.S. succeeded in shelving a World Health Organization plan to promote healthy food and lifestyles, drawn up with the help of member nations, nutritional experts and the food industry.
Backed up by its powerful food industry, the U.S. questioned findings on which the UN agency’s plan is based and called for more study.
The plan warns that poor diets and lack of exercise are the leading causes of diseases that account for nearly 60 per cent of 56.5 million preventable deaths a year.
The U.S. disputes claims that heavy marketing of high-calorie foods and advertising junk food on kids’ TV contributes to obesity.
The WHO delayed approving the plan until the end of February to allow for changes to the text.
Don’t get me wrong, folks. I argue for personal liberties, and I am in general a left-leaning individual. But I also don’t necessarily support the notion that the government has to protect people from themselves, regardless of right- or left-leaning intent. For instance, I think that the tobacco settlements, as a whole, were the wrong solution. Money or legislation isn’t the problem, the problem was that the tobacco companies lied about things that they knew, that their products were harmful, and they went out of their way to say that they were healthy.
Does McDonalds go out of their way to say that the Big Mac is healthy? No. Should they do a bit more to make it clear that ingesting a Big Mac is equivalent to 51% of the RDA of fat, 57% of the RDA of saturated fat, 28% of the RDA of cholesterol, 44% of the RDA of salt and 30% of the calories you need in a day? Well, it’s easy to get the info off of their website, or at their restaurants. (well, it is now, as compared with how they did things in 1980.) The company doesn’t push the information on you, though — their unhidden interest is in making sure that you buy their products. The information is also useless to someone who’s become addicted to Big Macs until they themselves realize that a change in their life is necessary.
So is helping people eat healthily their responsibility or not? It’s certainly in their best interest to make sure that their consumers stay alive, so they can keep selling to them. They choose to do this by making information on eating healthily and responsibly available to the general public, but I bet they also fund studies looking at how to help the human body better recover from overdoses of cholesterol, fat and salt. It’s in their best interest, no?
So then, if McD has the entire spectrum of responsible action covered (please confine your comments on this to their public health responsibilities, not to the humane treatment of animals or workers), is it the government’s responsibility to step in where companies choose not to take a “socially responsible” action?
Presently, I’m of the mind that it’s the government’s responsibility to prevent vendors from marketing nutritional or medical supplements which are grossly harmful to the human body. But notice I said marketing — if you’re stupid enough to eat some random poisonous berries when you’re in the forest, and die from them, it’s your own damn fault. I think the same goes for these companies. A company that sells hemlock tea bags isn’t going to stay around for long, unless they conceal the fact that their product is harmful. The consumer is then forced to make a buying decision without all of the pertinent and useful information available.
But this is precisely what many companies expect us to do. Trade secrets, for instance, prevent me from easily finding a shampoo that doesn’t cause me to break out with red bumps on my scalp. (No, it’s not lice or ringworm, and because it seems directly related to shampoo, it’s not psoriasis.) Since it’s acceptable to put a shampoo on the market without providing a complete list of ingredients on the bottle, I have to buy them one at a time and gingerly test them. I still don’t know exactly what it is that’s in some shampoos and/or conditioners that causes my problem, and an exhaustive literature search hasn’t turned up anything useful. Further, I’m hoping all the while that they don’t change the formula on my favourite shampoo, which keeps happening to me. (FYI, I presently am testing out Thermasilk, and it seems to be doing OK.)
Patents were supposed to address this issue for 20 years or so. (Sidebar: I found a fascinating lecture on the ideal patent duration.) Put a patent on your formulation of shampoo, disclose what’s in it fully, and how you make it. Release it to the public and let them try it out. You get guaranteed income for a long while, and then others can copy your formula. If you’re good at running a company, in 20 years you should be able to make enough cash on any well-created product with sufficient demand that you and your team can pleasantly retire if you so desire. After that time, it becomes a commodity, and there’s absolutely nothing shameful being involved in the production and distribution of commodity products. Efforts to extend patents (and copyrights) now reflect a change in the way government is expected to play a role in assisting entrepreneurial activity, a troubling trend that I believe has lead to dishonest and inappropriate action on the part of many companies.
So, getting back to the article, what should the U.S. do about “…claims that heavy marketing of high-calorie foods and advertising junk food on kids’ TV” ? Well, it would be best if the companies themselves understood how to market these products in a dynamic fashion without having to conceal that unhealthy snacks, meals and candies are best eaten in small, controlled quantities. What sorts of solutions do we have, and what are the potential counterarguments?
- Impose a limit on the total amount of marketing of junk food directly targeted to kids or adults. Counterargument: Limit of free speech, impact to bottom line of company
- Require marketing of junk food to be accompanied by a government-written warning or message, like has been done with tobacco. Counterargument: tradeoff on maximum % of government content versus product content, impact to bottom line of company, interference in free enterprise
- Regulate sales of junk food, with some arbitrary technology that prevents people from buying/eating too much at once. Counterargument: Draconian implementation, assumption that government knows what’s best for people, restriction on personal liberties and freedoms
The second choice is closest to my personal preference, perhaps with a pointer to a website or library resource helping people learn more about healthy nutrition.
The bigger question is: How do you motivate a populous droned to sleep by media and marketing back into thinking for themselves? I’ll get back to this in a later post.
If not, here’s a cute little story to amuse you:
Prayer for porn surfers (Reuters)
An Israeli rabbi has composed a prayer to help devout Jews overcome guilt after visiting porn Web sites.
“Please God, help me cleanse the computer of viruses and evil photographs . . . so that I shall be able to cleanse myself.” The rabbi suggests Jews recite the prayer when they log on to the Internet or program it to flash up so they are spiritually covered whether they enter a porn site intentionally or by mistake.