Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The obesity debate continues

Earlier in the month I wrote an article about soda taxes for Cato Unbound (spoiler: I'm against them). It has now had three full length responses, from Baylen Linnekin, Russell Saunders and Jennifer Harris. Baylen (an attorney) agreed with me, Russell (a paediatrician) partly agreed with me but still wants to see taxes on soft drinks, and Jennifer (a social psychologist) mostly disagreed with me and wants to see tobacco-style polices for food.

I have now written a post replying to them all which you can read here. Here's a taster...

Firstly, I should say that I do not hold some of the opinions that Harris and Saunders consider to be truisms. Saunders says ”that obesity is a major U.S. public health problem is not a subject of much dispute” while Harris says that “All agree that parents cannot solve the childhood obesity crisis on their own.” In fact, I do dispute that obesity is a “public health problem.” I don’t share the currently fashionable view that a public health problem is merely the aggregate of a nation’s private health problems. Obesity differs from genuine public health issues, such as unclean drinking water, pollution, and tuberculosis, in that it is not infectious and it can be prevented and cured without government intervention. It a private health problem – or, more correctly, it is a risk factor for private health problems.

I am loath to start a sentence with the words “as a parent,” but as a parent I reject Harris’s assertion that “parents can’t compete with the overwhelmingly unhealthy food environment surrounding their children as soon as they step outside the front door.” Parents can prevent their children becoming obese, particularly when they are young. Collectively, therefore, parents can “solve the childhood obesity crisis,” if it must be put in those terms. Similarly, parents can prevent themselves from becoming obese. The evidence is all around us. Even in the United States, with its supposedly “obesogenic” environment, two-thirds of adults and 83 percent of children are not obese. Obesity is not rare enough to be called deviant, but nor is it normal enough to be viewed as an unavoidable consequence of forces that are beyond the individual’s control.

In a free society, the question of whether government should introduce legislation to tackle obesity does not depend on obesity being a “pubic health problem” or even a “crisis.” Intervention can only be justified if obesity results from market failure or creates negative externalities for those who are not obese. Harris suggests that both criteria have been met. She uses what is essentially a market failure argument when she talks about the need for “widespread systemic changes to the food environment.” The implication is that consumers are denied real choice because so many products contain sugar, salt, and fat. This is the famous “obesogenic environment” in which healthy choices are supposedly difficult, if not impossible, and consumers are unable to satisfy their latent desire to eat cabbage and broccoli.

But look at the choices on the shelves, even in inner cities. There have never been so many low-fat, low-sugar, and low-calorie options in stores and supermarkets, never so many fruits and vegetables from around the world. You need look no further than the soda market to see the range of options available to the weight-conscious consumer. The Coca-Cola company launched its first low sugar brand (Tab) in the 1960s, and it now produces Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Coke Life. Diet Coke and Coke Zero contain no sugar, and Coke Life is a low calorie version of Coke, made with a combination of sugar and sweeteners. Nearly all soft drink companies produce similar low-calorie, zero-calorie, and sugar-free varieties. All are widely advertised and all are available on the same shelves, in the same stores, and for the same price as their more sugary cousins. It is very difficult to argue that consumers are nudged, let alone coerced, into buying the high-calorie variants. If they buy them it is because they want them.

Do read the rest.


Christopher Snowdon said...

Chris, what I don't understand is one certain foods are pointed out as the cause of obesity. It might be quicker to get fat on them but it is in no way the cause. Eating more calories then what is expended is the cause. I worked it out once and by over eating something as simple and innocent as one slice of bread each day would add 10 pounds in extra weigh each year.

Christopher Snowdon said...

I'll also add that other countries, ones in which the populations are, on average, thinner than ours, have far more "obesogenic environments", due to the lack of consumer choice. In the millions of beverage vending machines in Japan (and convenience stores), other than water, it's impossible to find a low calorie drink. They are all crammed with sugar. Similarly Thailand etc. How on earth are the Japanese able to stop themselves from ballooning to thirty stone?
These "social psychiatrists" and the like prefer to ignore real world evidence and instead just listen to the voices in their head. Pathetic.

Christopher Snowdon said...

As this piece aptly discusses, regulation is not a productive path with respect to health behavior change. Education that counsels a sensible balance of caloric intake and activity can help though. And, as this article rightly notes, the marketplace is replete with choices to enjoy a balanced diet – including an array of low- and no-calorie beverage options. Last, but not least, a majority of Americans have made clear that taxes and regulations on common grocery items are neither warranted, nor are they wanted, as evidenced by this Pew Research poll: http://pewrsr.ch/13I0vF3.
-American Beverage Association