Should We Do More to Regulate Food?

By now, pretty much everyone recognizes we have some dietary issues in this country.

The most obvious manifestations are diabetes and obesity.  By 2050, a third of Americans are projected to have type-2 diabetes.  Even today, a third of us are obese.  (Two thirds of us are overweight.)

There’s a reason more kids around the world recognize Ronald than any other character (except Santa).

These are dramatic increases from just a couple decades ago.  And it’s increasingly clear that these recent changes can’t stem only from our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.  A deteriorating national diet is having a lion’s share of the impact.

So, naturally enough, we’re seeing more and more attempts by government at the local, state and national levels to regulate what we can eat, where, and in what quantities.  Mayor Bloomberg successfully banned (artificial) trans fats from New York City restaurants.  San Francisco banned toys from fast food meals.  Philadelphia worked for some time on a soda tax (which ultimately failed to get legislative approval); New York is issuing a ban on sodas larger than 16 ounces; and other towns and cities have changed their rules for what goes into school lunches, what foods and beverages are allowed in school vending machines and what foods and beverages can be sold on city grounds.

These rules are small and slipshod.  They hardly strike at the root, often because local mayors and legislative bodies have limited authority to ban foods beyond their own city properties.  These bans are also unpopular with some, and aggressively opposed by interested food companies: Coke and Pepsi went a long way to scuttling the proposed soda tax in Philadelphia and other municipalities.

And at the national level, other issues come into play.  Industry lobbying is a big one; the First Amendment is another.  (This amendment has been cited repeatedly in preventing limitations on the advertising of junk food to children.)

Of course, plenty can still be done.  Tobacco’s a great example we can all look to when figuring out what can and can’t be done to stop the use of inherently unhealthy products.  Drugs may be another.  And of course Prohibition (if we’re willing to consider both sides) offers a cautionary tale.

Of course, there’s still widespread popular resistance to these regulations.  People don’t like the government telling them what to eat, and I don’t either.  But that may be largely a matter of the way we view food today.  People weren’t crazy at first about restrictions on cigarettes or drugs either (and in many cases still aren’t), but for the most part (and with the exception perhaps of marijuana), people today accept it as wise and normal that we regulate these substances.

And once we recognize that many of the foods we eat are just as harmful, if not moreso, than smoking, the public may be far more receptive to regulatory intervention.  If we now accept that cigarettes are terrible for us because they can cause lung cancer and increase our risk of heart disease, we may someday accept that foods like soda and heavily processed foods are terrible for us because they can also cause cancers and heart disease, and on top of that lead to diabetes, obesity and the range of other diseases associated with metabolic syndrome.

In the meantime, are the piecemeal regulations we see these days helping, hurting or having no impact whatsoever?  Some studies show that they help.  Heart disease has come down in New York City since the trans fat ban.  (Though it’s not clear whether the former was actually caused by the latter.)  Kids do eat better when toys are placed in healthier meals.  They also eat better when they’re not bombarded with advertisements for junk food.  (There’s a reason junk food companies spend billions of dollars every year to be sure these advertisements are in every child’s home.)

And Marion Nestle recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic explaining why.  It seems we don’t need to ban a substance, for people to avoid it.  We just have to make it less readily available.  People who can’t smoke cigarettes in bars, restaurants, hotels or public places have a much harder time smoking.  At some point, it doesn’t seem worth the effort.  People who don’t see cigarette ads on TV (because they’re not allowed) are less likely to think about smoking, try it if they haven’t before, or smoke more often than they otherwise would.

And the same may happen with foods.  Ban the drive-in, and maybe it’s just as easy to go into a grocery store as into a fast food joint.  Make grocery stores bury junk food in hard-to-see spaces and they won’t sell as well as when they’re jam-packed right next to the cash register.  Limit the sizes of default-menu options like value meals, and people may well order less fast food, and eat less of it.

These are somewhat smaller, and potentially more palatable, regulations to pass than outright bans.  And these sorts of steps may be a way for local, if not national, governments to step in and try to make a difference in our collective health.

I’m not saying I necessarily favor taking any of these steps, and there’s no sign they’d necessarily work.  I’d have a harder time telling people they can’t do something when it doesn’t hurt other people than when it does.  (Cigarettes hurt others via secondhand smoke, so banning them from bars and restaurants seems a civilized and humane thing to do.  Alcohol hurts the families and children of alcoholics, so placing some restrictions may make sense.  Junk food doesn’t hurt other people nearly as directly.  So it’s tougher to justify telling people they can’t eat it, even if they know the consequences and want to eat it anyway.)

None of these issues is easy.  But no matter what our approach to regulation, or to letting people do as they please, there’s no harm in getting the word out about the consequences of what these foods do to our bodies.  Either it makes people more receptive to regulation, or it empowers people better to self-regulate.  Either way, the more people know, the more likely we are to change our future.

Maybe what we should be focusing on is getting the word out.  But in the meantime, it’s encouraging at least to see that people are taking notice, and talking about ways to make change.  If some of the early steps governments have taken are working, then maybe that will encourage us all to keep taking steps in the right direction.

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