Junk Food Nation
For their money, the industry has been able to buy into a strategy on obesity and food marketing that mirrors the approach taken by Big Tobacco. That's hardly a surprise, given that some of the same companies and personnel are involved: Junk food giants Kraft and Nabisco are both majority-owned by tobacco producer Philip Morris, now renamed Altria. Similarity number one is the denial that the problem (obesity) is caused by the product (junk food). Instead, lack of exercise is fingered as the culprit, which is why McDonald's, Pepsi, Coke and others have been handing out pedometers, funding fitness centers and prodding kids to move around. When the childhood obesity issue first burst on the scene, HHS and the Centers for Disease Control funded a bizarre ad campaign called Verb, whose ostensible purpose was to get kids moving. This strategy has been evident in the halls of Congress as well. During child nutrition reauthorization hearings, the man some have called the Senator from Coca-Cola, Georgia's Zell Miller, parroted industry talking points when he claimed that children are "obese not because of what they eat at lunchrooms in schools but because, frankly, they sit around on their duffs watching Eminem on MTV and playing video games." And that, of course, is the fault not of food marketers but of parents. Miller's office shut down a Senate Agriculture Committee staff discussion of a ban on soda pop in high schools by refreshing their memories that Coke is based in Georgia.
A related ploy is to deny the nutritional status of individual food groups, claiming that there are no "good" or "bad" foods, and that all that matters is balance. So, for example, when the Administration attacked the WHO's global anti-obesity initiative, it criticized what it called the "unsubstantiated focus on 'good' and 'bad' foods." Of course, if fruits and vegetables aren't healthy, then Coke and chips aren't unhealthy. While such a strategy is so preposterous as to be laughable, it is already having real effects. Less than a month after Cadbury Schweppes, the candy and soda company, gave a multimillion-dollar grant to the American Diabetes Association, the association's chief medical and scientific officer claimed that sugar has nothing to do with diabetes, or with weight. Industry has also bankrolled front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom, an increasingly influential Washington outfit that demonizes public-health advocates as the "food police" and promotes the industry point of view.
Meanwhile, public opinion is solidly behind more restrictions on junk food marketing aimed at children, especially in schools. A February Wall Street Journal poll found that 83 percent of American adults believe "public schools need to do a better job of limiting children's access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food." Two bills recently introduced in Congress, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy's Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention (HeLP) America Act, both place significant restrictions on the ability of junk food producers to market in schools.
Interestingly, this is a crossover issue between red and blue states. Concern about obesity and excessive junk food marketing to kids is shared by people across the political spectrum, and some conservatives, such as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have argued for restricting junk food marketing to children. This may be one of the reasons New York Senator Hillary Clinton has once again become vocal on the topic of marketing to children, although Senator Clinton has called not for government intervention but merely for industry self-regulation, requesting that the companies "be more responsible about the effect they are having"--exactly the policy the industry wants.
A vigorous government response would clearly garner the sympathy of the majority of Americans. The growing chasm between what the public wants and the Administration's protection of the profits of Big Food is a powerful example of the decline of democracy in this country. Let them eat chips!