A COURT has struck down, at least for now, New York City’s attempt to slow the growth of obesity by limiting the portion size of sweetened beverages.
But governments should not be deterred by this and should step up their efforts to protect the public health by limiting the marketing tactics of food companies. Anyone who believes these interventions are uncalled-for doesn’t know the industry the way I do.
I was part of the packaged food and beverage business for more than 20 years. As the national waistline grew, the industry sought refuge in the fact that the obesity epidemic has many causes. It has insistently used that fact to fight off government regulators and justify why it should not have to change what it sells or how it sells it.
With tobacco, the link between product and disease is direct and singular. But it is less clear with food: the rise in obesity is the result of multiple factors. Suburban life discourages walking. Escalators have replaced stairs. Schools have eliminated gym class. Kids play video games now, not kickball. Even the vast increase in two-income households over the past 40 years has had an impact, discouraging cooking and increasing reliance on packaged foods and chain restaurants. It all adds up.
So when it’s time to pick the guilty party out of the police lineup, the food industry cries foul whenever critics point to it. “Hey,” the industry complains, “why pick on us when everybody in the lineup is guilty?”
But that’s not true. Everybody in this lineup of cumulative social and environmental changes may have played a role in the growth of obesity, but none are culpable the way the big food processors and soft drink companies are.