Supersize America: Whose job to fight obesity?
Banning extra-large sugary sodas. Blocking fast-food restaurants in some neighborhoods. Requiring calorie counts on menus. Kicking snack foods out of public schools. Are anti-obesity campaigns crossing the line into nanny state intrusion?
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Take the recent flap over the proposed ban on supersized sugary drinks, which would actually limit people's choices.Skip to next paragraph
To Harold Goldstein, the evidence in favor of such a ban is clear and convincing, especially for K-12 public schools.
"The science on the relationship between soda and obesity is unequivocal," says Dr. Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA).
A University of California study commissioned by CCPHA showed that the average American in 2001 consumed 278 more calories a day than in 1977 – with 43 percent of that increase coming from soda and other sugary drinks. Goldstein pairs that finding with another study, just out, showing that since California in 2005 banned the sale of soda and "junk food" on campuses of K-12 public schools, students there consume 170 fewer calories per day than do students living in states that still sell those products at school.
"Public policies that limit the marketing of sugary drinks are likely to be the single most important strategy for curbing the obesity epidemic in this country," he says.
But to others, the benefits of a ban on extra-large sugary drinks – or even slapping a tax on them – are not so cut and dried.
Research shows that consumption of soda, like consumption of cigarettes, shrinks in the face of a significant tax placed on it, says Elizabeth Vestal, policy analyst with the Schroeder Center for Health Policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "However, careful studies have found that the actual effects of this consumption reduction on obesity are less clear," she says in an e-mail. "This is partly because consumers substitute higher-priced soda with other caloric beverages."
[Editor's Note: The original version of this story misattributed the quotations of Elizabeth Vestal to another expert at the Schroeder Center for Health Policy.]
And then there's the matter of fairness. Why single out soda and not, say, doughnuts or French fries or ice cream?
"It is, I believe, incorrect and unjust to put the blame on any single ingredient, any single product, any single category of food," Muhtar Kent, chief executive officer of Coca-Cola, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published June 18. "This is an important, complicated societal issue that we all have to work together to provide a solution," he said.
Still, the trend appears to be building slowly in favor of greater government intervention, despite any uncertainty about effectiveness. The first battleground was the public schools, a 15-year fight to remove sodas and junk food from campuses and cafeterias.
The snack food and soda industries resisted every inch of the way, recounts Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which often challenges industry positions on health policy. "We were completely outspent and outgunned with their billions [of dollars] and donations and highly paid lobbyists versus our paltry public-health budget."
Efforts continue in many schools to improve student diet and lifestyle (see story, "Obesity in America: Schools on front lines of the fight"), but government anti-obesity efforts have also moved into other avenues, primarily soda taxes, zoning rules to restrict fast-food restaurants or to encourage healthy food options, and mandatory calorie counts on menus.