A little noticed exchange today on Twinkies tells us a lot about the politics of the Obama administraton's anti-obesity initiative.
Michelle Obama was asked, at a forum on childhood obesity sponsored by Newsweek, whether or not a warning label of sorts should be attached to a package of creamy, gooey, delicious, sugary Twinkies -- the implication being that kids' consumption of the product contributes to the childhood obesity epidemic.
MRS. OBAMA: You know, that strikes me as extreme, because a Twinkie is not a cigarette, you know. And what -- what parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this can we eat. It's not that we can't have a Twinkie. And our kids would be pretty upset. And I am not supporting that. (Laughter.) So all the kids out there -- right? I'm all in favor of good snacks. We grew up with snacks and chips. We did. But we have to exercise more, parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie; again, how does it fit into the overall diet. So we don't need a warning, we need information.
The cigarette line is telling. The anti-obesity community wants to use the tactics adopted by the anti-tobacco crowd -- shaming the industry, forcing people to pay more attention to health risks. Many obesity researchers view junk food as addicting, and there is evidence that it can trigger the same addictive feedback loop that the brain enters into once it's exposed to tobacco.
But there are differences too -- we need to eat food; we don't need to smoke cigarettes; our bodies have become wired to consume calorie-dense food like Twinkies. And food companies have been eager to market them to kids and parents. And they're cheap! And it really is OK for kids to have a Twinkie every once in a while.
There won't be demonization from this White House, at least not at first. In calls with various industry groups, White House officials have stressed that they don't intend to single out or blame industry, be it food processing companies, marketers or restaurants, for their role in the epidemic. Instead, the administration's policy will be additive and resource-based -- focusing on building the health infastructure and social capital that's needed to fight childhood obesity.
Whether this accomodationist approach is too soft -- the administration will evaluate its own progress after a year and see whether they need a more aggressive approach.
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