Spoonful of government won’t make obesity go down

Glenn Lammi Chief Counsel, The Washington Legal Foundation’s Legal Studies Division
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“Preschooler’s Homemade Lunch Replaced with Cafeteria Nuggets”

“Is Drinking Soda Worse than Smoking?”

“Fatty Foods as Addictive as Cocaine?”

Are these newspaper headlines from The Onion? Sadly, these are actual story titles from respected media outlets. The headlines reflect the near-hysteria that currently pervades discussion of America’s collective weight problem and supposed government policy solutions.

It would be easy to simply dismiss such hyperbole as trendy Big Food bashing. But behind the overblown headlines lies a calculated campaign. Its architects want you to believe that businesses are manipulating your diet and imposing harmful choices on you. Since you can’t trust yourself or the people who make your food, government must step in to protect you.

This campaign comes straight from the Activism 101 textbook and is modeled after the successful war on tobacco. The goal is to demonize, regulate and sue food companies.

The demonization efforts are well underway, with advocacy-tinged “studies” declaring sugar a toxin; allegations that soft drinks contain carcinogens and lead to heart and lung diseases; and accusations that food companies make products that are as addictive as cocaine.

The public health agencies of large U.S. cities, using grant money from federal agencies in some instances, have thrown their weight behind these demonization efforts. The cities’ advertising campaigns have broadcast graphic images of teens lacking appendages, people drinking fat and mothers serving glasses of sugar to kids.

All of this heavy-handed public “education” is designed to convince helpless consumers that only new taxes and regulations can alter our destructive eating habits. “Sin” taxes on soft drinks, sugar and high-fat foods will save thousands of lives, proponents argue. New food labeling mandates, advertising restrictions and even bans on some ingredients will force Big Food and Big Soda to eliminate “bad” foods and offer “healthier” products.

New, healthier products come to market every week without government mandates, but to activists, that’s beside the point. Also, it’s irrelevant that a majority of the public rejects food or drink sin taxes, or that many studies definitively demonstrate that such taxes cannot alter consumer behavior.

If the public isn’t willing to accept new taxes and regulations, politicians can always turn to plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue such policies through litigation. Class action suits against food and beverage companies are on the rise, with the majority claiming that defendants’ labeling or advertising is misleading or false. Such suits only nibble at the edges of public health activists’ goals, however. In the very near future, plaintiffs’ lawyers will capitalize on the “food is addictive” PR campaign and file lawsuits based on addiction. Such suits could generate huge damage awards, attorneys’ fees and expensive, widespread changes to our food.

Government policies that increase the cost of food, preach that soda consumption leads to amputation or impose age limits on sweets will not only fail, they will likely backfire. Overwhelmed with negative information about so many of the products they choose and enjoy, people may throw up their hands and cease efforts to be more selective in what they eat.

Some argue that government has absolutely no role in obesity prevention. But the reality is that government will be involved. It should do so in a limited, targeted fashion, pursuing policies that positively and neutrally inform consumers’ choices and facilitate physical activity, especially for youth. Government could encourage market-driven, private efforts to set standards for advertising and package labeling. It could also provide funds for more physical education in public schools, as well as for safe places for kids in unsafe neighborhoods to play.

Food and beverages are not only physically essential for life; they are a reflection of our personal liberties, our ability to choose. With that in mind, any public health role government pursues can never be so broad that it eats away at our freedoms.

Glenn G. Lammi is chief counsel of the Washington Legal Foundation’s Legal Studies Division.