The Obesity Wars: Time for a Truce



I have been mulling over my first American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, a gathering of nutritionists, researchers, and public health advocates most invested in improving the health of Americans that took place one month ago in Denver.

Of particular interest to me were the programs that unveiled new research related to food marketing and obesity. As expected, a number of speakers presented their take on the correlations between consumption of soft drinks, fast foods, and snacks with obesity; the problems surrounding advertising to children; and the impact of posting calorie counts on what fast food items customers select.

But what struck me the most was what wasn't emphasized (or picked up by the press). For instance:

Posting calories on restaurant menu boards is not working. In the four metropolitan areas in which calorie information had been provided to customers (New York; Philadelphia; Seattle; Portland, Oregon), results demonstrated little or no reduction in the number of calories purchased.

Some food marketers are making dramatic improvements in reducing advertising to children. While the number of fast food advertisements directed at children increased from 2003 to 2009, the number of ads earmarked to kids dropped for the major soft drink companies, with Coca-Cola recording the biggest decline at -56 percent.

This was open warfare, a battle between "good and evil," between Public Health and Big Food. It's time to call a truce.

There is no evidence that taxing sweetened beverages lowers obesity rates. These taxes will surely reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, but studies to date have not dealt with the "substitution effect"—do consumers simply eat other high-calorie products instead?—which other researchers indicate would not help ameliorate the problem.

But there was more than these seemingly innocuous omissions. One session I attended delineated legal tactics on how to attack the food industry based on lessons from the tobacco wars, tactics eerily similar to what food marketers have been accused of employing.

In another presentation, I suggested that perhaps it would be worth creating incentives for food marketers to more aggressively lower the number of calories they sell. This was met with an irate response from the session's leader: That approach won't make a difference, industry will never change, and "good luck" trying.

With that I concluded that the campaign to reverse America's ever-expanding girth has reached an impasse. This was no silent undertone of discontentment. This was open warfare, a battle between "good and evil," between Public Health and Big Food.

It's time to call a truce.

What we need now is an entirely new approach that can address the nation's obesity problem. Solutions must be found that work for all invested parties—public health officials, the food industry, and consumers. As long as the bipolar politics of food prevails, fixes to our nation's obesity crisis will remain elusive.

Making real progress demands the adoption of new rules of engagement. It's imperative that:

• Public health advocates accept that corporations are in business to make a profit;

• Food marketers be active participants in driving calories out of the food supply; and

• Both parties must focus on what's best for the consumer.

It's time that we devote our energies on fixing America's obesity epidemic rather than defending tired positions. The Battle of the Bulge has morphed into the War of the Roses, with the prospects of a pyrrhic victory now more likely. Are we determined to be "right" at the expense of sentencing our children to a shorter, less healthy life? Clearly this is an unacceptable legacy.