At The Atlantic's Food Summit on Thursday, Food Channel editor Corby Kummer hosted a panel called "The Way We Eat." As academic and corporate panelists discussed various measures to counter the obesity epidemic, they kept returning to an article Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently published in Health Affairs. Corby called the article "provocative" and "controversial" for its extended comparison of America's obesity problem today to its smoking problem ten or twenty years ago.
Frieden's use of this analogy is not surprising given his background. As New York City health commissioner from 2002 to 2009, he launched an anti-smoking campaign that drew fire at the time but is now credited with reducing the city's smoking rate by 19 percent. Frieden hiked up tobacco taxes, banned smoking from restaurants and bars, and ran aggressive anti-tobacco ads. Toward the end of his tenure in New York, he banned trans-fats, required chain restaurants to post calorie counts, and launched a sodium reduction initiative.
In his obesity article, Frieden proposes taxing junk food, citing the success of tobacco taxes in reducing smoking. A penny tax on each ounce of sugary beverages -- the much-debated "soda tax" -- "would be likely to be the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic," he argues. That's a strong statement not everyone on the panel agreed with, as some members worried it could serve as a "gateway" for taxes on all other kinds of less-than-ideal foods.
Frieden also suggests "counter-advertising," a strategy he employed during his tobacco-fighting days. If his paper makes an impact, expect more ads like New York's notorious images of soda morphing into fat as it's poured into a glass: "Hard-hitting anti-tobacco ads that graphically show the human impact of tobacco-related disease are most effective in reducing tobacco use," Frieden explains.
While the newly minted CDC head is certainly not popular among the libertarian crowd, his ideas are picking up steam among policy and lawmakers. Obama expressed interest in a soda tax last summer, the Senate Finance Committee proposed the tax as one way to help pay for health care reform, and a handful of states have already implemented soft drink taxes on their own.