Politics
WASHINGTON - JUNE 21:  Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (L) speaks as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg (R) listens during the daily White House briefing June 21, 2011 at the White House Briefing Room in Washington, DC. Sebelius and Hamburg announced the unveiling of nine new cigarette health warnings that will be required on all cigarette packaging and advertisements in the United States beginning September, 2012.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) WASHINGTON - JUNE 21: Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (L) speaks as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg (R) listens during the daily White House briefing June 21, 2011 at the White House Briefing Room in Washington, DC. Sebelius and Hamburg announced the unveiling of nine new cigarette health warnings that will be required on all cigarette packaging and advertisements in the United States beginning September, 2012. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)  

Feds look to regulate food similar to tobacco, with hopes of saving money on health care

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

The federal government has a growing interest in the eating habits of Americans for the same reason it has an interest in tobacco consumption, said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The reason is money, because three-quarters of medical-spending is driven by chronic diseases, such as obesity and tobacco-related diseases, she said.

Sebelius’ comments came at the tail-end of Tuesday’s White House press conference where officials showcased nine new photos that must be carried on cigarette packs. Officials used a survey of 18,000 people to find the images that would have the most distressing impact on groups of smokers, including young smokers and mothers of young kids.

“We want teenagers to understand smoking is gross, not cool,” said the HHS chief. If the public becomes desensitized to the distressing pictures, they’ll be replaced by new pictures, she said.

The regulations are justified, she said, because tobacco causes 443,000 premature deaths, and creates “$200 billion a year in health costs that we clearly could spend better elsewhere,” she said.

But the press questions shifted to food labels when a reporter pressed officials about new food-labeling standards being promoted by the government.

The standards are part of a much larger push by medical professionals to regulate the food sector. The medical professionals, led by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have allied with professional advocacy groups, such as Center for Science in the Public Interest, and with leading Democratic politicians, to blame the food-sector for increasing obesity rates in the American population, and especially among African-Americans.

People like to eat the increasing amount of cheap food produced by the food industry, and the rate of obesity has climbed steadily. In turn, obesity has spiked government and private health-care costs, because fat people are more prone to expensive diseases such as heart-failure and diabetes.

Federal health-care bills have risen in step, partly because of obesity’s costs, but also because many medical-professionals and Democrats want the federal government to fund a growing portion of the nation’s health-care spending.

These political interests reinforce each other. Health-care professionals say their expertise can reduce the federal government’s health-care costs, and politicians say they need professional expertise to curb the growing cost of expanding federal health-care programs.

First Lady Michelle Obama, for example, has accelerated the process by simultaneously supporting the Obamacare expansion of government spending, while also establishing her ‘Let’s Move’ anti-obesity campaign. The professional campaign is aimed chiefly at African-Americans, and urges parents and children to exercise more and to eat carefully.

In April, the FDA published a new set of rules requiring restaurants to show the calories in each menu item, and the Federal Trade Commission released a set of guidelines for food that is marketed to children. These steps were mandated by the 2009 Obamacare health-sector law.