We Do Have Our Squabbles

Squabbling, Ignorance, and Obesity Policy

Follow the arc of obesity policy and you will see a repeating pattern defined by passionate squabbling and a limited understanding of the problem. Policies to address obesity rise to command attention, sparkle for a bit, and then fall away. The health impact of obesity grows unabated all the while. In Social Science and Medicine, Phillip Baker and colleagues use a case study of Australia to describe a pattern that repeats itself around the globe.

Sporadic Interest Meets Political Barriers

Baker et al found obesity rising and falling on the political agenda in Australia, in sharp contrast to tobacco policy. For tobacco, they found sustained public and private initiatives to curb its use for decades. For obesity, spurts of political interest fell away in the face of squabbling with entrenched interests and uncertainty about solutions.

Though tobacco was a powerful adversary, it is optional for human life. Food is not. Producing, processing, and marketing food accounts for a huge swath of the global economy. Tobacco accepted regulation. Food producers resist it every step of the way.

Big Food – multinational food companies – gets lots of blame for this resistance. But swarms of smaller players make food politics especially tricky. When Denmark enacted a fat tax, a gazillion bakers rose up in rage. Denmark repealed the tax within a year. It’s more than just Big Food that gets in the way of obesity policies.

Fragmented Evidence and Expert Opinions

The most striking barrier is discord within the ranks of people who present themselves as experts on obesity. In contrast to tobacco, obesity is wickedly complex. Understanding of this complex disease is incomplete. Disagreements ensue about which interventions will work. The result is inaction, as Phillips explains:

With politically contested policy issues, the standard of evidence required to achieve policy change is generally higher. We found this was certainly the case for obesity and an argument of “limited evidence” was consistently used to justify government inaction.

Better Policies Require Better Evidence

Our problem with obesity is not simply caused by food. It will not be solved as long as we remain ignorant about its complexity. Experimenting with interventions – like soda taxes – must be realistic. We must measure outcomes.

But most important, we must dig deeper for a genuine understanding of every aspect of this disease. Right now, obesity is not curable. But ignorance is. Research can provide answers if we can admit the limits of our knowledge.

Click here for more from The Conversation and here for the paper by Baker et al.

We Do Have Our Squabbles, photograph © Michael Brace / flickr

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May 29, 2017

2 Responses to “Squabbling, Ignorance, and Obesity Policy”

  1. May 29, 2017 at 10:52 am, Allen Browne said:

    Minds are like parachutes – they only work if they are open.

  2. May 29, 2017 at 1:08 pm, Ted said:

    Amen. It’s fascinating to watch smart people argue that the consensus is strong on a controversial subject like sugar and obesity. Rather than acknowledging unresolved issues, people argue that there can be no argument. Hilarious!