The policy highlights of this Weight of the Nation conference are designed to scare people in power. And since everyone in Washington is obsessed with cost, the big news out of the conference this morning is the latest estimate of obesity's direct costs from obesity cost guru Eric Finklestein $147 billion per year. His calculations are exacting, although it is extremely difficult in reality to make such a snapshot estimate of something so complicated as obesity. This is one reason why researchers in the field tend to focus on suffering and disparities within populations, rather than aggregate cost. But policy-makers take their cues from numbers, and the CDC has an agenda to sell too. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given the problem at hand, but it's an example of how it is impossible to separate science and values.
When Dr. Thomas Freiden, the new CDC chief, presented what he termed a "not official" comprehensive strategy to combat obesity, values and science intersected at every level. Even hard science requires hard choices. Freiden said that, to him, the primary cause of obesity was the rise in prices of good food and the drop in prices of bad foods over time. The solution: raise the price of bad foods and lower the price of good foods. How one does this, Freiden admitted, was not entirely clear, and he did not seem to be advocating any price control regime. He gave his second recommendation the title of "exposure." It's easy to increase access to healthy foods, but it's more difficult to restrict one's exposure to unhealthy foods. You can take junk food out of the schools without much political trouble. But Freiden said that junk food ought to be seen by parents and children as "toxic." Figuring out a way to stigmatize food -- and the food companies that make the stuff -- will be difficult from the standpoint of government. And restrictions on food advertising to children will be a bit tough to sell, even if there is evidence that doing so might lower the growth rates of childhood obesity. Health priorities -- especially common health priorities -- may conflict with our ingrained preference for free speech and our belief in a self-regulating marketplace. The Federal Trade Commission tried to restrict advertising in 1979, to such a cry that the agency itself was almost shuttered. The food industry has made concessions over the past several years, some of them significant, and some of them prophylactic. It has voluntarily changed some advertising practices, but only about five percent of its advertisements involve healthy foods, according to the government. Advertising drives profits; menu labeling does not take away much profit.
Freiden said that the proliferation of junk food advertising aimed at kids might turn out to be a major societal regret, much as pro-smoking ads shock the modern conscience. Thirty years from now, "when we look back, we might ask ourselves, what in the world where we thinking"
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.