Fat, Sick, and Waiting for the government to save us

Obesity Campaign Poster

(Photo credit: Pressbound)

Have you ever pulled into a strip mall for lunch, and sat in the car for a minute surveying the options? McDonald’s golden arches are calling your name, but you know that’s a bad habit you want to kick. Subway is a solid choice, and there’s also that new organic place with the great salads. Maybe your kids are in the backseat. They are shouting for the chicken nuggets and french fries, but you’re the parent, and it’s up to you to decide. Or so you think…

The way Reuter’s new special report portrays the battle between the federal government and the food industry, your “choice” is determined by actions miles away in the nation’s capital.  It’s Big Government vs. Big Food, and all your Big Gut can do is sit back, watch, and hope the good guys win:

(Reuters) – In the political arena, one side is winning the war on child obesity.

The side with the fattest wallets.

After aggressive lobbying, Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.

And during the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” to discourage consumption of sugary drinks has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

It’s debatable whether the food industry or Congress has the “fattest wallet”, and probably comes down to how many maxed-out credit cards Congress is carrying at the moment. Regardless, the framing of this story from the outset is that the battle for our national health comes down to money, as if our collective waistline expands or contracts based on whether legislators accept Big Food’s bribes or remain steadfast in their principles. Big money lobbyists can certainly have a corrupting influence on government, but the common liberal trope that the masses are pawns at the mercy of corporate advertising campaigns is an enfeebling one. It’s also not true. We are still a free people with considerable means and a plethora of information available on what constitutes healthy food choices. The responsibility to make the right ones falls on us.

Reuters continues: 

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Lobbying records analyzed by Reuters reveal that the industries more than doubled their spending in Washington during the past three years. In the process, they largely dominated policymaking — pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation’s diet, dozens of interviews show.

It’d be interesting to hear this story from a different perspective: “Activists and legislators have lost fight after fight on food regulations, as citizens consistently send the message that they don’t believe it is the proper role of government to ‘change the nation’s diet.'” That wouldn’t fit the worldview of evil corporations deviously choosing profits over people,  but it falls closer to the truth. Why would we trust a government that can’t manage a budget to manage our diet?

The current “For the children!” emphasis is meant to gain sympathy for the cause, but it won’t stop there. Furthermore, it’s another insertion of government in the realm of family. Even if parents often do a poor job of feeding their children, outsourcing that role to the federal government will create more problems, enhancing the damage the welfare state has already done to the family. What kind of society results when parents are no longer responsible for the food on the dinner table?

The demonization effort goes on:

Health experts and Harkin say the food industry has employed some of the same tactics as Big Tobacco in its efforts to fight stricter regulations — chief among them the argument that the industry should regulate itself.

A damning comparison, but you know who else uses the same tactics? Murderers and those wrongly accused. “Chief among them the argument” that both are innocent.  Another distinction probably worth mentioning is that the food industry provides a product necessary for survival, whereas Big Tobacco provides one that speeds up death.  One more thought on food/tobacco comparisons: the overwhelming campaign against smoking has made it unseemly among the well off, while the excessive taxes have simply made it financially debilitating among the poor, who haven’t given it up at the same rate. The recent emphasis on nutrition and health has likewise caused those with more resources to get their act together, but heavy-handed government regulation will probably just make life for the lower classes more difficult.

Armed with those arguments and a bulging political war chest, the $1.5 trillion food and beverage industry has defeated soda taxes and marketing restrictions in cities and states across the nation, mounting referendums to overturn the taxes in the two states that passed them and persuading 16 states to prohibit lawsuits over fatty foods.

“$1.5 Trillion” is noted as if it’s nefarious. We’re a big country, and even if we all went on a diet, our food and beverage consumption will remain quite expensive.  Left unsaid is that, at the end of the day, “referendums” require citizens to vote, not just large corporations writing checks. And ‘lawsuits over fatty foods” are an absurd idea that would be a giveaway to the John Edwards-like, ambulance-chasing lawyers of the world.

Meanwhile, Michelle Obama’s childhood-obesity campaign pivoted from criticizing foodmakers toward promoting exercise.

We need you all to step it up,” she told the Grocery Manufacturers Association in a March 2010 speech. “We need you not just to tweak around the edges but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products and how you market those products to our children.”

…Instead, the First Lady (with free advertising from broadcasters) emphasized exercise — a favored cause of companies that lobbied against stricter food guidelines.

Whatever influences and motivations got her there, this is exactly how the issue should be addressed. The First Lady has a great platform and has chosen a worthy cause. Educating parents and children on healthy food choices and the importance of exercise can open up people’s eyes on the issue, complementing TV shows like The Biggest Loser and documentaries like Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. Heavy-handed government regulation would just restrict freedom and cause resentment. Big Food deserves plenty of scrutiny for its often unhealthy production or dishonest marketing, but the information is out there. US citizens have the knowledge and financial means to keep themselves and their families healthy. Personal responsibility may be difficult, but it is the only true solution.

One last point worth considering before we accept the premise that government should be in charge of our health. What else will Congress justify based on paying for health care costs? Are we sure they’ll never make us eat broccoli?

Beverage companies showed their political clout in 2009 when they faced a proposed penny-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks in a Congress eager to raise money to pay for obesity-related health care costs.

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