Bitterroot Forest Fire

Scorching the Earth for Public Health

Scorching hot rhetoric seems to be the favored tool for public policy debates at the moment. Obesity related health policy is no exception. The food industry is a huge target with many segments to attack: fast food, processed food makers, industrial farming, “big soda,” and sugar producers. The latest outrage is summed up in this New York Times headline:

Coke and Pepsi Give Millions to Public Health, Then Lobby Against It

soda-consumptionIn the context of this headline, taxing soda is equated with public health. Coke and Pepsi oppose soda taxes, so they are opposed to public health. “Those people should not have a voice in the debate on this topic” seems to be the thinking.

We disagree with this scorched earth strategy on two counts.

First, it’s not clear that taxing soda will put a dent in obesity rates. Soda consumption is already dowsugar-consumption-and-obesity-prevalencen to levels that have not been seen since the 1980s. For that matter, sugar consumption is down, too. And yet, obesity prevalence continues to grow steadily.

So maybe a soda tax is not a guarantee of less obesity and better public health.

Second, neither the beverage nor the food industries are going away. Even if soda consumption is reduced to zero, people will continue to drink beverages – some of them sweetened with sugar – as they have for centuries. Both food and beverage industries meet a vital public need.

And importantly, food and beverage companies have some of the best insights into how people consume their products. Their insights are essential to finding solutions that will work for better health.

Many of these companies are working to develop products that people will recognize as promoting good health. It’s a key demand from their customers. And some companies are working particularly hard to meet that demand. A healthier food supply will come from those companies.

Scorching hot rhetoric about evil industries gets in the way of forging solutions for better public health that will actually work. We need better, civil dialogue.

Click here for the story of outrage from the New York Times and here for the analysis that prompted it.

Bitterroot Forest Fire, photograph by John McColgan / flickr

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October 13, 2016

4 Responses to “Scorching the Earth for Public Health”

  1. October 13, 2016 at 9:43 am, Ted said:

    Thanks to the reader who pointed us to this thoughtful new commentary on the wicked problem of conflicted interests:

  2. October 13, 2016 at 11:00 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup – food and drink are essential. Thanks.


  3. October 20, 2016 at 11:17 am, EC Henley said:

    Perhaps we need to look more intently at non dietary aspects of weight. For example, since 1970, have we been sheltered from exposure to blue light (recent study with animals showed a reductions in body weight wt in those exposed to blue light), are children less likely to spend free time roaming their neighborhoods inclreasing both activity and decreasing snacking, are we sleeping less, are we eating-out more? Weight gain is multifactorial thus need to not focus on one item in diets.

    • October 20, 2016 at 11:22 am, Ted said:

      Good perspective, EC. Thank you!