Beating Obesity: Taking The Toys Away; Incentivizing Industry

One of the reasons I'm fairly optimistic that childhood obesity rates can be reduced is that policy entrepreneurs of all types are overflowing with ideas.  Former beverage industry executive Hank Cardello, author of a new book about obesity wants to provide positive encouragement for industries to reduce the amount of calories they produce.

One initiative I am advancing is the "20 by '20" program, designed to reduce the supply of calories 20 percent by the year 2020. It would offer all packaged food marketers and restaurant chains a straightforward quid pro quo: keep your tax deductions for advertising in exchange for lowering the number of calories per serving you sell. Specifically, food manufacturers and restaurant chains must lower their calories sold by 2 percent each year for 10 years in order to retain their deductions for advertising. And those deductions are formidable, with $15 billion spent annually. So if the makers of items like Pepsi, Lunchables, and Monster Thickburgers lower their calories by 2 percent per year, they get to keep their deductions. If they lower them by 10 percent or more in a given year, they receive a 25-percent bonus on deductions. But do less or spew more calories on the consuming public, and companies will see a reduction in their precious deductions.

This is a morally unsatisfying proposal for those who blame the food companies for doing their part to create and encourage the crisis. But if it works, it works. And reducing obesity, not satisfying one's craving for emotional revenge, is a better goal. How this would all work is something Cardello addresses in his book.

He prefers this sort of solution to the negative pressure exerted on industry by regulators, who are already hinting of a broad crackdown unless the industry takes measurable steps to reduce calories on its own. Cardello is definitely against "fat" taxes, and for the standard reasons. My own suspicion comes from the fact -- and it is a fact -- that there is no logical connection between excise taxes on sugar and soda and the incentive to reduce overall caloric intake.  Cardello's industry-centric approach recognizes the role that industry is playing in the crisis itself, which is a step in the right direction. When it comes to making food better, the question is how we train people's brains to respond to a set amount of calories as if it were a greater amount of calories. We become addicted to a certain level of energy; the push and pull of homeostasis make it extremely difficult to voluntarily reduce consumption.  So I wonder whether reducing the supply of food will matter in a country that already produces excess food and distributes it inefficiently.

Then comes the effort by Santa Clara County in California to ban toys from fast food meals. No more Iron Man Cyclone Spinning Robot Drones for kids in unincorporated parts of the county.  

This is an experiment of the sorts that Santa Clara County is known for, and it is a gentle one at that -- there are plenty of places in the county where kids can still get toys with their food. I don't doubt for a minute that the restaurant industry is culpable of manipulating the impressionable brains of young children by tying consumption to toys. This would sever the link, at least in part. It's not clear whether the county can actually do this legally, so the court fight will be interesting. I'm not against an idea like this, but I'd be very wary of exporting until we know whether it works, or whether it simply a way to demonize the fast food industry without reducing obesity.