Alex Pietrowski, Contributor
Food Processors Want to Keep Us Snacking – Can Public Policy Help?
No one can question the fact that the condition of public health in the United States has reached a critical point, and that much of this health catastrophe can be blamed on poor eating habits.
Nearly 1 million Americans each year experience a heart attack and another 600,000 die of heart disease, with poor diet and obesity being two of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease. About 1 out of every 3 American adults is obese, with another 17% of American children being obese. The cost associated with obesity-related healthcare, as well as the associated loss of productivity, is estimated to be up to $190 billion each year.
Despite these staggering statistics, public policy does nothing to encourage a healthy diet, in fact the opposite appears to ring truer; we live under a sort of culturally reinforced dietary tyranny of processed and unnatural foods. And while the government assaults and prosecutes those who cultivate and pursue raw milk and natural foods, they are also now telling us that they can create better health through legislation, taxation and by implementing legal restrictions on serving sizes.
Are Taxes the Answer?
Just as there are heavy levies on the sales of cigarettes (about 57% of the cost of a pack in the US), some government entities are vying to extend this measure of control towards improving the public health by taxing unhealthy foods.
Denmark is an interesting example of this type of policy. In 2011, the Danish government began taxing foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, yet, due to strong pressure from the food industry in an already weak economy, the tax is now being repealed. Furthermore, the Danish public was resentful for having to pay more for natural foods high in fat, such as butter, dairy products and meat.
“The purpose of food taxes is to reduce sales of the products concerned. In bringing in its fat tax, the Danish government also wanted to raise revenue, reduce costs associated with obesity-related diseases, and increase health and longevity…. Anti-obesity tax measures in other countries have tended to avoid targeting broad nutrient groups. Instead, they focus on processed foods, fast food or sugary drinks – all major sources of calories. Taxing them seems like a more promising strategy.” – source: New Scientist
Recently Dr. Oliver Mytton, Academic Clinical Fellow, and his colleagues at the University of Oxford had examined the effect that taxes can have on public health. The research team found that taxing a variety of unhealthy foods would be most beneficial for public health, although if lawmakers were to start somewhere, a tax on sugary drinks would quickly have a noticeable impact.
“… a US study found a 35% tax on sugar sweetened drinks ($0.45 (£0.28; €0.34) per drink) in a canteen led to a 26% decline in sales.
Meanwhile modelling studies predict a 20% tax on sugary drinks in the US would reduce obesity levels by 3.5%, and suggest that extending VAT (at 17.5%) to unhealthy foods in the UK could cut up to 2700 heart disease deaths a year.” – source: BMJ.com
Under the Influence of Public Policy Makers
Americans’ collective unhealthiness drives the largest healthcare and medical industries in the world, generating about $2.2 trillion dollars in 2006. These industries alone pump millions of dollars to persuade public policy in their favor.
And let us not forget the food industry – comprised of a declining number of large food and beverage companies, with the top 10 accounting for about 45% of industry sales in 2012, led by Pepsico, Tyson Foods and Nestle. These companies spend tens of millions of dollars annually lobbying public officials so that policy favors their interests. A healthy and natural food diet advocates do not have lobbyists working overtime to ‘persuade’ our lawmakers into believing that a new policy based on the promotion of a natural diet might benefit public health and reduce many American’s medical bills. Assuming, of course, that government and industry want lower medical bills.
Under this modicum of corporate influence of public health policy, it is no surprise that there is no public effort to encourage people to eat less and eat better. This would be bad for business, and such efforts would encounter strong opposition from food industry, medical and pharmaceutical giants.
The recent shift and growing popularity of buying local and organic food already has the leading food producers concerned, hence their aggressive acquisitions of smaller organic producers. The leading food processors are not likely to easily allow policies that encourage local farms and subsidize healthy food producers, unless they can also reap the benefits without hurting their conventional business, which seems rather unlikely, considering that conventional business is processed, denatured foods.
Feeding Consumers a Mixed Message
There have been many local and state efforts throughout the US to implement taxes on sugary drinks. Largely, these efforts are quickly abandoned as soft-drink companies throw millions of dollars into lobbying and publicity campaigns that focus on the consumer’s right to choose. They’re concerned about our freedom. However, New York City recently set what could end up being a nationwide precedent for regulating the size of soft drinks:
On Thursday [Sept. 2012] the New York City Health Department became the first in the nation to ban the sale of sugared beverages larger than 16 oz. at restaurants, mobile food carts, sports arenas and movie theaters.
It’s a bold experiment in the anti-obesity campaign, and while it’s widely supported by health professionals, it’s not popular with food retailers or most city residents. source: Time
So what is the message that Americans are getting from their government? On the one hand, discussion of a natural diet is left out of the debate as per the will of industry, and on the other, we are to face criminal violations for indulging in that which is most heavily promoted to us.
And with fines of up to $200 for violation, the city’s purveyor’s of tasty drinks are likely to be compelled into compliance. So does this mean that the the world famous Coca-Cola billboard in Times Square will now be encouraging thirsty tourists to break the law?
We all should have the right to choose what we drink, but often the information we are given to make these decisions is misleading. For example, raw milk producers have had to face strong policy opposition and even persecution, with many consumers not allowed to buy raw milk due to its “potential health dangers.” Yet fast food establishments have been given the green light in every corner of our great nation. So what are Americans to do?
Advocating higher taxation in any form is unconscionable in this economy and with a government as widely corrupt as is the US government and many state and municipal level governments. The tax burden on the American citizen is already overwhelming and it is clear that no level of taxation can resolve the astronomical national debt we have accrued under the fiat money system overseen by the privately held Federal Reserve.
In a big way, this means that the American people are facing a serious catch-22 when it comes to public health: we are fined if we do, and we are doomed if we don’t.
General food policies that encourage healthy eating and subsidize healthy food production are just two examples of how government could educate the public and make healthy food more affordable, but this would require a break from the corporate influenced system of policy making we have today, which is highly unlikely to occur without much more participation from an aware public.
Once again, the solution to one of society’s greatest problems is left up to the individual. With industry and government competing for your shopping dollars, your tax dollars, and control over your plate, the need for healthy, informed and active Americans has never been greater.
Alex Pietrowski is an artist and writer concerned with preserving good health and the basic freedom to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. He is a staff writer for WakingTimes.com, and an avid student of Yoga and life.