Food Fight

by DavalosMcCormack on March 17, 2009

A couple of weeks ago we ran a Special Report about a new approach to tackling the problem of obesity, one that targeted the fast food industry and used the same kind of public health strategies that are proving effective against tobacco and smoking, namely restricting where they can be consumed and by whom.

Now the food industry is once again coming in for a less than flattering comparison to tobacco from the world of public health. This time, two of the nation’s leading public health experts are calling on the food industry not to try the same stalling and counter strategies that the tobacco industry used for years to fight anti-smoking campaigns.

At issue are tactics that smear anyone critical of the industry, distorting science around the health and quality of fast food, and insisting that they are not encouraging children or anyone else to overuse their products.

The two health experts are Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, and Kenneth Warner, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

In an article in The Milbank Quarterly, the two say that the food industry is adopting similar tactics to those used by the tobacco industry to combat its critics.

In a news release Brownell says “One is heavy-duty lobbying; two is paying scientists to produce results that favor industry positions; three is fighting to frame the issue as a matter of personal rather than corporate responsibility, and the fourth is funding front groups to do their dirty work.”

The two issue a number of actions they say the food industry needs to take to show its sincerity in helping tackle the issue of obesity. They include:

  • Stop selling unhealthy products in schools and hospitals
  • Stop blaming people for their actions regarding obesity
  • Stop using celebrities and slick ad campaigns to promote their products
  • Stop marketing unhealthy foods to children

They also called on the food industry to reformulate their products with healthier ingredients.

Naturally the food industry is not taking kindly to the criticism, or the suggestions. It has long been their position that this is a matter of individual responsibility; that no one forces people to eat their products or to eat them in amounts that are bad for them.

However, given the billions of dollars spent every year in advertising and promotion, and the fact that in many poor and low income communities there are few if any stores that sell fresh produce, many people have few options.

Walk around any impoverished inner city neighborhood and count how many supermarkets there are, or even corner grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Then compare that to the number of liquor stores and fast food restaurants in the neighborhood. The latter vastly outnumber the former.

It’s difficult for a community to improve its health on either a collective or individual level when it lacks the resources to do so. Without easy access to healthy foods, without access to safe streets and parks where people can exercise and children play, it’s hard to turn the tide of obesity.

The food industry is right that individuals bear some responsibility for their health issues. But the industry also has some responsibility in pushing their products. They can’t simply load the gun then walk away and say it’s not their fault if the consumer pulls the trigger.

We’re all in this together, which is why Brownell and Warner’s call for action is so important. It moves the issue from some overweight Big Mac fans looking for someone to blame for their expanding waistline to serious, thoughtful public health experts looking for ways to resolve a national, indeed international, heath concern.

Until we, as a society, take responsibility for this problem nothing is going to change. The food industry may not like it, but they are part of the problem. The only question now is do they want to be part of the solution.

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