business news in context, analysis with attitude

Time magazine this week features a story about what it calls “the politics of fat,” and the piece serves as an excellent summary of the debate taking place about responsibility as it relates to the nation’s obesity crisis.

And while some might suggest that this is not a debate that belongs in the political arena, such suggestions actually come too late – like it or not, the economic and cultural impact of a fat America has brought the discussion to the forefront. And in some ways, the debate is centered on a question that Ronald Reagan asked in order to get elected: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Today, some scientists say, young people may be facing an average lifespan that is shorter than their parents’ – the first time in history that this has happened, and a trend that is intimately connected to the obesity crisis.

“Nearly every state has taken some steps on obesity, mostly centered on children,” Time reports. “In the past year, Arizona set nutritional standards for all food and beverages sold on school grounds. California banned the sale of junk food as snacks in schools starting next year. Kentucky requires students to engage in vigorous physical activity for 30 minutes a day or 150 minutes a week and next year will prohibit its schools from serving that staple of Southern cuisine, deep-fried foods. Maryland plans to put timing devices on school vending machines to limit access during school hours. Many states plan to make nutrition instruction part of their curriculums.”

But while some would break the debate down to traditional political lines – conservative Republicans stress personal responsibility to the point where they protect food companies with legislation that prevents them from being sued, while liberal Democrats want to create a so-called “nanny state” in which the government is over-involved with personal choices – this isn’t the way it always breaks out.

The fact is that the obesity crisis has created strange bedfellows. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who often is talked about as a potential GOP presidential candidate, made health and nutrition the centerpiece of his tenure as chairman of the National Governors Association. (He has some personal experience with this, having lost more than 100 pounds himself.) And when he chaired a meeting of the association recently, he brought in a Democrat with a well-known weight problem to speak – former President Bill Clinton, who stressed that obesity is a cultural problem that cannot be easily changed.

“But how?” Time writes: “Embarrass Americans into saying no to that second helping of cheesecake? Taxing calories? Hauling the corporate chiefs of Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola before a congressional committee, as happened in 1994 with the heads of seven tobacco companies, and suing them? There have been many instances in which government has either rallied a majority to rescue a group of suffering Americans, as in the War on Poverty, or tried to push Americans out of unhealthy and expensive bad habits, including smoking, littering, drunk driving and failing to wear seat belts. All involved some combination of education, cultural change, legal penalties and old-fashioned shame.” But obesity is different…in part because everybody has to eat, in part because there remains so much legitimate debate about where responsibility lies.

“Big Food is eager not to repeat the mistakes of Big Tobacco, and it knows that self-regulation is one way to keep the government from stepping in,” Time writes. “What worries the food industry most are the lawsuits that have begun to move through the courts, often going where politicians fear to tread. One key question is whether public-health advocates will succeed in sticking the food industry with one of the charges that damned the tobacco business: that its executives knowingly harmed the health of the public--especially children--with their marketing tactics. Of course, Big Tobacco had the additional problem that its products are clearly addictive.”
KC's View:
It is silly to compare so-called “big food” to “big tobacco.” The food industry’s approach to food hasn’t, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, been engaged in creating specifically addictive products and then lying about their actions to the public. So trying to draw parallels strikes us as being counterproductive, because it distracts from the real issue – how, as a culture, are we going to change our fundamental approach to food?

To be honest, we have no quick and easy answer. We don’t even have a long and difficult answer.

The shame of this is that much of this discussion manages to take all the fun out of food – it creates the potential of an antagonistic relationship with food that isn’t healthy either. It creates issues of self-esteem that are difficult to rationalize.

There’s got to be an answer out there somewhere.