Lip Brand

What’s the New Smoking?

People seem desperate to find something that they can call “the new smoking.” The head of England’s National Health System made headlines yesterday by saying:

The new smoking is obesity. One in five cancer deaths is now caused by obesity. I do think we’re going to need reformulation to take sugar out of foods, in the same way that has successfully happened with salt.

If that doesn’t happen then, in effect, what we’re doing is a slow-burner food poisoning through all of this sugar that goes on to cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease.

Bless his heart. We know he means well. His metaphor just doesn’t work, though.

Smoking is a specific risky behavior that people can live without. Obesity is a disease. If we knew how to eliminate it, we would have done so a few decades ago. But we don’t and we haven’t. Instead, it’s been growing all the while we’ve been proclaiming renewed determination to stem the tide.

What we’ve actually done is chase one villain after another and found unintended consequences when we did. In the 1980s, we decided fat was the culprit. Low-fat diets became the ideal for healthy living and the entire food supply was gradually reformulated for lower fat content. Sugar and other carbs replaced the fat. Obesity rates grew.

Now sugar is the culprit that must be driven out of our diets. Perhaps this time will be different. Or perhaps it won’t. You can be sure that it will be another experiment and unintended consequences are likely.

Let’s be clear. Obesity is not the new smoking. Uninterrupted sitting might be. Supersizing might be. Video gaming might be. Drinking “energy drinks” might be. If you want a single culprit to blame for obesity, you’ll likely be disappointed.

Obesity is a disease, not a choice.

Click here for more from the BBC and here for more from the Guardian. Click here for more from ConscienHealth.

Lip Brand, photograph © wackstuff / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


2 Responses to “What’s the New Smoking?”

  1. June 02, 2015 at 5:58 pm, Joe Gitchell said:

    We may need to have more of a discussion on this, Ted. I mostly agree with you, but when you throw in self-medication issues from nicotine, I’m not sure that your contrast of “unhealthy behavior” vs. disease fully covers it.

    Next time you’re in DC, we’re sitting down to have it out!


    • June 02, 2015 at 6:13 pm, Ted said:

      I’ll look forward to it, Joe!