“Ripped from the headlines:” Obese America impedes fat fight

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.

So what’s the other side of this story? This makes the U.S. seem like a bunch of money-grubbing, junk food addicted idiots, plus a top 1% of people interested in continuing to make gobs of money successfully marketing supremely unhealthy products to the target groups most at risk. It implies a complete lack of responsibility at the highest levels, while ignoring the responsibility each individual has for herself to choose to eat healthy or not.

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?

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

6 thoughts on ““Ripped from the headlines:” Obese America impedes fat fight

  1. Where to start.

    Let us first start with the demonization of the U.S. I’m not sure if you have been here long enough to remember when the U.S. was not the evil empire to the south. I would love to give a date when the U.S. started being viewed as the bad guys by Canadian media, but I can’t. I do remember when they were not though.

    On obesity: I doubt that the World Health Organization could create an effective campaign to promote healthy living. I also wonder how the statistics are generated: According to the article you quoted, 2/3 of Americans are overweight (or about 200 million people) lets assume 10% of those are obese (my guess) or a full 1/3 (of 60 million quoted above) of the problem lies within the U.S. borders.

    I would think the U.S. government would consider that a problem. The fact they don’t leads me to believe that the problem is probably not as real as the WHO says it is.

    On Patents: Most patents are on processes not products. Many products are within ‘common use’ and despite the stupid patents issued lately would never hold up in court.

    In the case of soap and conditioners not have ingredient list, is simple. The company doesn’t know what is in any particular batch literally. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. He was reading that the bread (dempsters I believe) “may contain” soy bean. The questions that arouse is Why would there be soy in bread to begin with, and why don’t they know if they are putting it in. I knew the answer to this. The government regulations require for Grade A flour (used in bread) to contain a certain amount of protein. The flour mills guarantee this by adding soy if it below the government regs. The flour mills don’t mark which batches have it, so the bakeries can’t.

    To get back to shampoo. The ingredient unsaturated polypropylene, could come from light crude, tar sand, pig fat, vegetable oil, coconut oil, canola, etc… and as it is one of the basic ingredients in soap (it reacts with salt under heat to create soap) there is no way of telling what ‘other stuff’ came along with it vecause the company doesn’t know the source of it. In many cases the “scientific formula” is more marketing than real.

    Now back to obesity and individual rights. I believe that a certain minimum requirements should be required on the label. And if there are ingredients that are potentially harmful, those should be labeled clearly.

    Ultimately it is your choice what you eat, but you should have an informed choice. And that means that enough of the supply chain should be exposed to the consumer so that ingredients are at least known. I spent a stint doing a supply chain management for a Agribusiness conglomerate. I can attest that no one knew where things were coming from or going. Things are bought on futures from one place which then subcontracts it somewhere else, who decides it cheaper to buy third persons last year crop in storage and ship it.
    “Equivalent” batches get switched in transit, get reordered and shuffled in warehousing etc… Once they get to the customer, batches are mixed in production randomly.

    On the regulation of sale/consumption of junk food: I can see it know. People on the streets paying they’re dealers for another hit of nachos while the food cops are after him. Hey, little girl, you want so Candy?


  2. The problem is of course, the definition of junk food. In theory, a lot of foods that we consider normal meals are bad for us.

    In Ontario, some schools (and the province is looking into it as well) have banned soft drink vending machines off their property. However at the same time any child can bring a case of coke or a bottle to school in their school bag and keep it in their locker. Yes it is inconvenient, but if they want it bad enough to begin with, they’ll get it anyways. Banning or restricting it has no point other than to make it look like they’re doing something for the kids. I agree everyone needs to be aware of the food they’re eating/depending on, but isn’t everything bad in large quantities?

    PS – I’m also reminded of National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, where the owner of the McDonald’s equivalent lobbied to have his restaurant replace all cafeteria’s in the country.

  3. The American obesity problem is going to come to a head before too long. And it won’t be from governments or NGO’s pushing policy. It will be coming from employers who can’t afford health care.

    The problem here is that when you make a “personal” choice about what to eat, it still affects other people: if you eat a lot of Whoppers and get fat, and you contract diabetes, you suddenly cost your health insurance a lot of money for drugs, insulin, testing kits, etc. And everyone’s premiums go up as a result to cover it.

    (This is even more directly evident in a state-sponsored healthcare system. Now, it’s not just other customers of a particular insurance company, but all taxpayers who wind up paying for the poor eating habits of a few.)

    Things are starting to rile a bit on this front, and I can’t see it getting better before it gets a lot worse.

  4. It’s kinda like the whole smoking thing to me. It’s not like people don’t *know* the food they are eating is unhealthy. I am certainly conscious of what I’m eating every time I have a slice of pizza, and it’s made me limit my consumption. I’ve stopped eating fast food period because I put on so much weight over time. My point is that it’s really my decision and my responsibility. The government already tells me what drugs I can take, the percentage of alcohol that can be in my beer, what my clothes have to be made of, etc. The last thing I need is them telling me what I can and can’t eat. I am, however, in favor of mitigating the risk to the rest of us for other people’s unhealthy behaviors. For example, “you smoke, you pay for health insurance on your own and your premium is sky-high. If you’re fat and it’s not caused by a medical problem, same deal.”

    BTW, I worked for McDonalds for 2 years and was treated very humanely. :)

  5. Let’s assume I have this friend, who looks at porn intentionally.

    Does this mean I (er, the friend) should say 5 Hail Marys and an Our Father afterwards or does the rabbi’s prayer cover that?


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