Many health advocates would like to see the government restrict fast food sales, regulate advertising, and require more explicit warning labels. Given the correlation between fatty, empty-calorie food and deadly diseases, perhaps there should be regulations similar to those for tobacco and alcohol, restricting advertising and where some products can be sold.
Others call this sort of legislation “nanny state” politics, with the government making decisions instead of consumers. For people who make healthy dietary choices, the occasional indulgence in chocolate cake or Cheetos isn’t likely to have long-term consequences; should the government restrict everyone’s access to these treats because some people don’t have any self-control?
Is My Weight the Government’s Business?
The fact is, the problems caused by America’s unhealthy diet have simply become too big to ignore. From 1998 to 2006, U.S. obesity rates increased nearly 40 percent; by some standards, about 1 in every 3 Americans is overweight. These numbers constitute a public health crisis, as so many chronic diseases are tied to obesity and unhealthy eating; diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, breast cancer, and colon cancer are just a few.
If that weren’t enough to spark lawmakers’ concerns, there’s the cost: the Centers for Disease Control and and Prevention (CDC) says that medical care costs related to obesity cost the nation more than $147 billion every year. And that doesn’t include the lost wages and productivity related to illness, disability, and death.
The fact is, processed food (much of it packed with unhealthy fats and oils) has become cheaper and more easily accessible as fresh food grows more expensive. Thus Pop-Tarts and Pepsi have become more common in many households than fresh eggs and orange juice. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that between 1985 and 2000 the retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 118 percent; by comparison, the cost of carbonated beverages rose only 20 percent, fats and oils 35 percent, and sugar 46 percent.
Protecting Us From… Fat
The fight against junk food began, unsurprisingly, in Europe. Sweden and Norway have outlawed advertising directed at children younger than 12 on commercial television, effectively putting an end to cartoon characters hawking sugary cereal and “fruit” snacks. In France, more than 22,000 vending machines were taken out of the schools. Denmark banned trans-fatty acids, a known contributor to coronary artery disease, as early as 2003, and is implementing a tax on saturated fats.
A more local food revolution launched in 2007 in New York City, when a ban on trans-fat, (also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil) was approved. Restaurants were given six months to switch to oils and margarine with less than half a gram of trans fat per serving, and had to eliminate trans fat from all other foods by July 1, 2008. Over 24,000 eateries in the city complied, and since then more than a dozen other city and county governments have instituted similar codes, including Philadelphia and Boston. California became the first state to ban trans fats in 2008.
The good news, for proponents of junk food regulations, is that these type of actions seem to be working. A study released last month by the CDC showed that in participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, blood levels of trans-fats decreased by 58 percent between 2000 and 2009. The reduction occurs during a period when the FDA began requiring more stringent labeling of trans fat content on packaged food, and as many companies began voluntarily reducing trans fat content. Further support comes from Harvard, where researchers estimate that eliminating trans fats from the U.S. food supply could prevent up to 19 percent of heart-attack related deaths each year.
Is More Legislation the Answer?
Trans fat isn’t the only unhealthy thing on the menu. There are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the U.S., making greasy, fatty foods generally far more available than fresh foods. This sort of disparity led to a controversial resolution passed by the Los Angeles city council, effectively banning new fast-food joints in South L.A. Another controversial approach is to tax junk foods, a method which researchers have found does lower consumption of fatty and sugary products such as pizza and soda pop. Thirty states already have additional taxes on soft drinks. Other legislation that has been proposed in various states includes restricting food advertising geared toward children, removing nutritionally-deficient foods from school menus, and removing food advertising and vending machines from schools.
Nanny state or not, the government does have a role in restricting unhealthy habits. The 1998 tobacco settlement, in which 46 states settled lawsuits against the tobacco industry for recovery of tobacco-related health-care costs, also put an end to most cigarette advertising. These days, almost half of Americans who once smoked have quit, and rates of smoking have fallen to under 20 percent for the first time since the 1960s.
The Last Bite
It’s true that, as critics of food legislation argue, you don’t need to smoke–but you do need to eat. Of course, no one needs to eat Fritos and drink Coke; water and an apple would fill you up just as much and leave you much better off in the long run. Right now, too many of us would probably choose the chips.
It’s entirely possible, however, that as with tobacco, government regulation could lead to more widely accepted knowledge of the threat posed by junk foods. In 30 years, we might just look back on the widespread use of trans-fats or high-fructose corn syrup the same way we do smoking in the 1960s: a quaint but dangerous custom of a population that didn’t know any better.