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14/06/02 . From Chris Ayres in New York . The Times . UK
Health warning: eating can make you fat
Junk food companies in America are to warn consumers that eating too many of their products could make them fat.
In a move designed to protect companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola from the kind of lawsuits brought against the tobacco industry, an industry-funded organisation will begin its advertising campaign — codenamed Activate — in a fortnight.
“It is designed to help kids between the ages of nine and 12, and their parents, to improve their eating and activity,” said Michael Mudd, a senior vice-president at Kraft Foods, one of America’s biggest makers of snack food.
The campaign, which will begin with a $2.4 million (£1.6 million) online marketing project and then television and press advertising, will cause uproar in a country whose citizens spent $110 billion last year on junk food. A quarter of the adult population visits a fast food restaurant such as McDonald’s or Burger King every day.
Lawyers and food industry experts say that the project, which is being backed by the International Food Information Council foundation, could lead to packaged foods such as chocolate biscuits and crisps having cigarette-style health warnings.
Food industry executives, however, are playing down such speculation.
Industry backers include McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Burger King, Pepsi, Heinz, Unilever and Monsanto.
Critics of the industry say it has been panicked into the move after the publication of a report last December by David Satcher, the US Surgeon General. In unusually blunt language, he warned that obesity-related health problems were costing America $117 billion a year. Treating smoking-related diseases costs just $23 billion more.
“Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking,” the report said, adding that 300,000 deaths a year were caused by the problem, compared with 400,000 from smoking.
A few weeks after Mr Satcher’s report, the Internal Revenue Service, the US equivalent of the Inland Revenue, decided to classify obesity as a disease, allowing overweight Americans to deduct the cost of treatment from their taxes.
In this climate, junk food companies are becoming increasingly agitated by talk of tobacco-style lawsuits against them. John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who helped to pioneer multibillion dollar lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers, is one of many high-profile figures openly to talk about suing food companies for obesity-related health costs.
“There’s a real change in the public attitude towards obesity, similar to that change that took place with tobacco,” he said.
He added that four recent lawsuits against food companies, including McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, were just the beginning of a bigger trend.
Professor Banzhaf said tobacco lawsuits started out being similarly small, but soon grew dramatically bigger as public outrage intensified.
He added that if the government failed to act on obesity, the courts would do it themselves. “You watch television any night and see commercials for cheeseburgers, triple cheeseburgers and not once have I seen one that says, ‘Warning: twice your daily recommended amount of fat’.”
But the industry says the Activate programme is not related to fear of obesity lawsuits.
“We began researching the increasing incidence of obesity when it started to happen three or four years ago,” said Sue Borra, one of information council’s officials responsible for the campaign.
Ms Borra added that obesity was related to much more than just junk food. “It’s about the use of automobiles, the television, the internet, the lack of time to cook at home — it’s a pretty complex issue.”
Food companies are not only concerned about lawsuits. Campaigners also argue that junk food such as Big Macs should be taxed in the same way as cigarettes.
They say the billions of dollars raised from the “fat tax” — also known as “heavy duty” — should be used to fund anti-obesity education programmes.
In the states of California and Vermont, plans for fat taxes have been proposed by senators, but were rejected after heavy lobbying by the food industry.
Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, is one of many academics who believe a fat tax is now the only option available.
“We’ve tried willpower and we know it doesn’t work,” she said. “And willpower doesn’t work because there’s $30 billion worth of food marketing, much of which is designed to evade common sense.”
According to the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a political “think tank” in Washington, a one-cent tax on every 12oz soft drink would generate about $1.5 billion in revenues every year. In addition, a one-cent tax on every pound of sweets, crisps and other snacks would raise about $314 million.
Campaigners such as Professor Nestle also have more radical ideas. They argue that US building codes should be altered to force property developers to put attractive, useable staircases in office complexes as well as lifts.
Television sets and cars should also be taxed, they say, because they encourage general slothfulness.
In Midwestern states such as Illinois, where heat can be fierce in summer
and the cold equally unbearable in winter, the use of air conditioning and
heating devices should be discouraged, campaigners say, because being either
too hot or too cold results in the human body burning calories.