Op-ed column: Food for argument

In light of the ballooning obesity problem in the United States, the Bloomberg Administration in New
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette

In light of the ballooning obesity problem in the United States, the Bloomberg Administration in New York City is acting responsibly when it limits the availability of super-sized beverages. Here is an example of government action that is clearly in the interest of citizens.

Junk food and beverage companies are predictably irate that their presumed right to package unhealthy products is threatened by such a sensible regulation.

Locally, too, Schenectady County’s use of a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to create more playgrounds is a move in the right direction. It is welcome evidence that at least some people in government still believe that there is more to their jobs than just facilitating tax breaks for private companies or funneling construction money for non-essential road projects. Or just getting re-elected.

Up until relatively recently in human history, the greatest problem for the average family was getting enough calories instead of getting too many. In New York state, two reputable studies forecast the obesity rate will rise from the current rate of 25 percent to 51 percent over the next two decades. In some local counties, such as Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie, the obesity rates may already be far above 25 percent.

Obesity is looming as the major public health issue of the next decades just as smoking was the major public health issue of the 20th century.

Where is the FDA?

On a broader level, the public policy question is where the Food and Drug Administration has been all these years. If the FDA has neither adequately regulated the tobacco industry, nor set sensible regulations to control the fat and sugar and sodium content in foods, nor done much to restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones in meat products, nor even studied adequately genetically modified foods, nor set standards for vitamin makers, then what has it really been doing with its mandate?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the food and beverage industries have basically had their way with the FDA. The growing obesity problem is yet more clear evidence — above and beyond the lamentable lack of regulation of the financial services sector and the oil industry — that a major problem in the U.S. is under-regulation by government, not over-regulation as is claimed by right-wing ideologues. In the absence of federal oversight, local government has a role to enact basic guidelines in the public interest.

The highest purpose of good government is to protect the public interest.

That is what the Bloomberg Administration is doing by setting a limit on the size of sugared beverages. It is about time someone has the foresight to take some action that is clearly in the general public interest. This is definitely not an example of the “government” telling people how to live their lives. If people want to jeopardize their health by drinking excessive quantities of sugared drinks, then they can still do so.

Just common sense

It is no ban; it is not even a tax. It is quite simply common-sense public policy. Moreover, it is completely in line with the mainline American idea that the purpose of responsible government is to act in the public interest.

Truly enlightened public policy, though, would require far more decisive steps beyond the minor gesture of limiting the size of all those non-nutritive, sugared drinks that contribute to the obesity problem. At least this new law is a start.

Obesity is a complex problem, as Glynnis Hunt, the Schenectady County public health education coordinator, recently noted. Solving the problem will require some government leadership, especially since self-regulation by the private sector in so many areas simply isn’t effective.

At least funding a few playgrounds in Schenectady County represents using public money for public purposes. How about the state Legislature or even local school boards jumping into the act by finally removing junk food and soda from school cafeterias? What gives private corporations anyway a public right to prey on children in public places by letting them sell non-nutritive, taste-engineered products? New playgrounds, new public gardens and a new freezer in Schenectady County won’t win the upcoming second Battle of the Bulge, but at least it is a step in the direction of rational public policy.

Even more vigorous action is needed. And what about also cracking down on junk food advertising on television in the name of public health, the same way advertising for tobacco products has already been curtailed? That will also be in the direct public interest. Of course, junk-food interests will defend their marketing tactics behind freedom of speech claims.

Irrelevant argument

Freedom of speech, though, really has nothing to do with the marketing of bad food and drink using advertising gimmicks to create new commercial niches for unhealthy products.

And what about requiring schools to add a structured physical activity period at the beginning of the school day in addition to regular gym classes? Why do we make children sit passively in classes for hours and hours right from the start of the day? Part of the battle is also encouraging healthy habits.

Schools will be a main battleground in the upcoming public fight against obesity.

A culture obsessed with food — as ours is — probably suffers on some level from a poverty of spirit. It is true, too, that as long as the public is conditioned by exploitative advertising to think that the ultimate measure of good food is taste, rather than nutritional value, obesity will remain a major public health issue.

Enlightened public policy will require more decisive steps. For now, though, initiatives like that of Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, and public health projects in Schenectady County, are at least a start in the direction of better public health. Let the second Battle of the Bulge begin with even more vigorous public action.

– L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section. –

Categories: Opinion

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