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

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.

In turn, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and industry-backed Food Marketing Institute developed their own ‘Nutrition Keys’ labeling system. The labeling system will be publicized with a $50 million campaign, and will be used by companies that sell 70 percent of the packaged-goods in the United States. Participating companies are required to list the calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving of a product on the front of food packages.

The industry’s labeling system was established “not to avoid the specter of regulation, but out of a desire to do the right thing for consumers, and to provide them with the tools and products they need for a healthy diet, which in turn will help us combat obesity,” said Sean McBride, vice-president for communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

When asked if the government would extend tobacco-style regulations to food deemed fattening, Sebelius told the reporters that the federal guidelines are only voluntary.

In the same press conference, Margaret Hamburg, the FDA’s chief, added that “we need to work with industry to provide consumers … with the best possible information about nutrition and health so that we can all make good choices in terms of promoting and protecting health.”

“The food industry recognizes there are ways they can improve,” said Hamburg. “We certainly have a vested interest in that as a public health agency, and we want to work with them on that.”

“When the combined voice of the four most important regulatory agencies for [your industry] speak, it is hard for companies to ignore those guidelines, even if you feel they are unwarranted or unfounded,” said McBride. “Industry shares Ms. Obama’s goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation, and we will continue to work with government stakeholders towards that goal,” he said.

Sebelius deflected questions about whether food officials would mandate distressing pictures on food they consider unhealthy. Tobacco is unique, she said, because it is “the number one cause of preventable death.” But Sebelius did not rule out tobacco-style treatment for food. “It has a lot to do with underlying health costs and overall health of our nation … the work around obesity and healthier, more nutritious eating, more exercise, will continue to be I think an ongoing focus,” she said.

But as she stepped off the podium, Sebelius finally threw an answer back to the reporter who had asked if distressing images would be mandated for fattening foods. “Just lots of celery stalks and broccoli,” she said.

Tags : centers for disease control and prevention kathleen sebelius
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