Political debate brewing over how to regulate obesity

Monday, August 25, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Even fat is the stuff of politics in Washington. And with obesity a growing health problem, lawmakers, lawyers and activists are lining up the way they do for most issues: on two sides.

The left's view is that the food industry and advertisers are big bullies that practically force-feed people with gimmicks and high-calorie treats. They say Ronald McDonald is the cousin of Joe Camel.

The right's argument has been dubbed: You're fat, your fault. They say people can make their own choices about food and exercise.

"I don't think people want to go back," says Tomas Philipson, a University of Chicago economist. "They'd rather be fatter and richer."

The debate has spilled over into public policy, with proposals for a junk-food tax, limits on food advertising, demands for more details on labeling and lawsuits against food manufacturers. Several states are considering limits on sweets sold in schools; some are debating whether to force chain restaurants to list nutrition information on menus.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently introduced a bill that would prevent people from suing restaurants and food manufacturers for making them fat. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

Fatter than we think

The stakes are high. Some 300,000 Americans die prematurely each year from being overweight. It's the leading lifestyle-related cause of disease and death in the United States after smoking.

Americans are even fatter than they think they are, with nearly a third of all adults -- almost 59 million people -- rated obese in the National Health and Nutrition Examination surveys based on actual body measurements.

The number of obese adult Americans increased more than 50 percent between 1980 and 1994, according to a 2002 federal study.

Obesity increases the risk for a number of serious ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and strokes, high blood pressure and types of cancer.

There are more overweight people in the United States than anywhere else.

"Almost everyone can afford to be fat," says John Calfee of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who spoke at a recent conference where people chewed the fat on obesity theories over a lunch of salad, burgers, grape soda and bottled water -- with a bag of Oreos passed around at the end.

Some say that Americans, from cradle to grave, are being influenced -- even suffocated -- by mountains of food promotions and gimmicks.

Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology at Yale University, calls all this the "toxic food environment" and shows examples -- baby bottles with soft drink logos and bibs labeled "Future Whopper Eater."

"If healthy foods were advertised as much as unhealthy, maybe we'd have a chance," he said.

Brownell says restrictions should be placed on characters used in advertising aimed at young people -- much like they were for R.J. Reynolds' Joe Camel. He'd like to see Ronald McDonald eat his last fries and disappear.

"There is no evidence that the federal government is doing anything to address the problem," Brownell says.

Food companies are looking for protection against those who would hold them liable for fattening products.

Recently, consumers have begun suing fast food chains like McDonald's and Wendy's, arguing that the food has contributed to their obesity and diseases such as diabetes.

A federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit in January that blamed McDonald's food for obesity, diabetes and other health problems in children, calling the law no guard against personal excess.

Other lawsuits were filed last year -- a 270-pound maintenance worker alleged that eating McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and KFC had caused him health problems. Those suits were dropped or put on hold while the lawsuit against McDonald's was considered.

Schools that give beverage and snack food companies exclusive rights to sell their goods in vending machines might also find themselves in court.

Lawyers are "salivating over the idea that these foods are as addictive as nicotine," said psychiatrist Sally Satel. "The term addiction can be stretched until it's meaningless. It's litigation addiction."

Kraft Foods, responsible for such goodies as Oreos, Mallomars and Chips Ahoy cookies, said in June it plans to fight obesity by changing its recipes, reducing portions and encouraging healthier lifestyles.

The nation's biggest food manufacturer also will eliminate promotions in schools, including posters and free samples. Its snacks will still be stocked in school vending machines.

The government showed it's also trying to make gains in fighting obesity. The Food and Drug Administration issued a new regulation last month requiring companies to disclose on labels how much artery-clogging trans fat their products contain.

Some say economic realities are driving Americans down a fat and happy lane.

"So food is more cheap, more prevalent and much tastier," said Rick Berman of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which represents restaurants and food makers. "Then do we need less food that tastes like crap?"

Greg Critser, author of "Fatland," says more education is needed on healthy eating, especially for children. About 15 percent of youths aged 6 to 19 are seriously overweight.

"I have met parents who have not a clue about how to educate their children about eating," he says. Then, there are the schools that teach nutrition, but don't follow through with a healthy menu.

Ruth Kava of the American Council of Science and Health says while the ubiquitousness of food is a major problem, in some cases, genetics can be blamed. If both parents are obese, there's an 80 percent chance the child will be, too, she said.

"The system is complex and there are many layers of control," she said. "Genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger."

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