August 12, 2009

Ousting Obesity: Strategies from the Tobacco Wars

On July 28 2009, I attended a panel discussion organized by the Urban Institute focused on the current obesity crisis confronting the United States.

It is very much a crisis: A full third of American adults and one out of six American children are obese. These numbers are alarming, because obesity has been directly tied to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. In fact, according to featured panelist Arthur Garson, Executive Vice-President & Provost of the University of Virginia, this is the first period of time since the Civil War that life expectancy in the United States has gone down.

Contrary to popular belief, the rise in obesity is not due to lack of exercise but rather due to poor nutrition. Matthew Myers, a tobacco expert and featured panelist, compared obesity to the public health crisis of smoking, and he provided the panel with a hopeful note by suggesting that we can learn from that effective battle. He proffered three main strategies along those lines that can reduce obesity:

1) Limit the advertising of fatty foods.
2) Create a better labeling system to help consumers distinguish good from bad.
3) Tax fatty foods, which in turn will reduce consumption as it did for tobacco.

I see the potential benefits of these tactics - but I also see complications. While he is correct that taxing tobacco reduced consumption of cigarettes, unlike cigarettes food is a necessity. Taxes on fatty foods would put further pressure upon people who already have a hard time putting food on the table -- and what's more, in neighborhoods like some served by Bread for the City, there simply aren't many alternatives to unhealthy foods. So it's just not as simple as changing people's incentives.

Though this panel discussion did not provide all the answers, it did make one thing clear. Something must be done about obesity, and it must start now.

Bread for the City is conscious of the health problems that surround obesity and has recently taken initiatives to bring nutritious foods into our communities. Bread for the City’s Glean for the City program allows us to provide clients with fresh produce thus adding healthier items and better nutrients to their diets. Through our Nutrition Initiative, Bread for the City has also eliminated trans fat foods from the bags we give our clients. And we are eager to find new ways to partner with organizations like DC Hunger Solutions, which work to expand access to healthy foods in our highly food insecure city.

Contact Jeff Wankel in order to get involved with Bread for the City’s Glen for the City Program. And stay tuned for more!


Pat said...

Have supermarkets put signs near fatty foods that point consumers to healthier alternatives.

I'm also down with cigarette style warnings and taxes, but your point about limited options in many neighborhoods is definitely valid.

Ed Bruske said...

Fat does not cause obesity, carbs do. We are killing people with a glut of calorie-dense carbohydrates. What this country really needs is a conversation on insulin and what too much of it causes: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis.

Matt Siemer said...

I'm with you, Ed.