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Overconsumption: Mmm ... good PDF Print Email
By Laura Nathan-Garner
Thursday, January 29, 2004

During the past few years, there has been plenty of talk about the increasing prevalence of obesity in this country. Not surprisingly, dozens of industries are trying to capitalize on this epidemic. It seems like every other week, a new ”miracle drug“ is put on the market to help consumers lose dozens of pounds in a matter of days. Gyms, yoga studios, and people who produce workout videos are making a fortune off of this phenomenon as well. And, of course, there's Jared the Subway guy, who has taught us all that if we just eat Subway sandwiches every day, we too can drop a significant amount of weight.  

Given these developments, you'd probably guess that Americans were buying into a new cult of thinness rather than one of obesity. Given the number of people suffering from anorexia and bulemia, there is no doubt that there is some validity to this statement. But as Americans continue to buy into new weight-loss fads, the statistics seem to suggest that high rates of obesity and obesity-related health problems (and deaths) continue to skyrocket. Part of this can be explained by the fact that these fads rarely keep weight off long-term, if at all.

But there are other questions that need to be asked. Why is it that despite an obsession with thinness, we can't seem to keep the obesity statistics down? Do we just eat too much? Do Americans lack the willpower to just say ”no“ to spending more money and eating more food than necessary for sustenance? There's certainly no question that, on the whole, people in the U.S. tend to consumer considerably more than people in other countries do.

But consider the way in which the Bush administration is providing life-support for the obesity epidemic. As Jonathan Rowe and Gary Ruskin point out, the Bush administration, which has talked quite a bit about personal responsibility and staying in shape, has rejected the World Health Organization's plan to combat obesity, diabetes, and other related illnesses.

One of the Bush administration's primary justifications for rejecting this plan is that individuals should take responsibility for their own actions and for their food and diet. For most opponents of government regulation of our bodies, there is quite a bit of validity to this argument. But there is another side to this story that the government isn't articulating. As Rowe and Ruskin explain:

Note that the Bush Administration is not demanding some personal responsibility from
junk food bigwigs such as sugar magnate Jose ’Pepe‘ Fanjul, Safeway CEO Steven Burd, and Richard F. Hohlt, a lobbyist for Altria (formerly Philip Morris), which is majority owner of Kraft. It is not asking them to take responsibility for the billions of dollars they and other junk food marketers spend seducing our kids with saturation ads, nor for the obvious and predictable consequences of these actions — i.e. the diseases
associated with the consumption of junk food.

Each of these fat cats has purchased an indulgence in the form of bundled $200,000 contributions to the 2004 Bush campaign. So the Administration points the finger instead at parents and their children ...

The sugar industry has wanted to hobble WHO since the organization said that free sugars should comprise less than 10% of total daily calories. Last April, the Sugar Association actually threatened WHO that it would sic its allies in Congress on the U.S.'s annual $406 million contributions.

Now, we agree that people do need to take more responsibility for the junk they put into their mouths, and for their failure to get off their behinds. But the global obesity lobby has to take some responsibility too, for its nonstop propaganda campaign, especially when it is aimed at children. That includes Henry Kravis, founding partner of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which is majority owner of Channel One, an in-school meeting service that bombards schoolchildren with ads for soda pop and junk food. True, Mr. Kravis has bundled $100,000 to the Bush 2004 campaign. But surely President Bush understands that sometimes, we just have to say "No."

Executives such as Mr. Kravis seem to have a hard time grasping another Administration nostrum – that parents are the proper guides to their children's behavior. They persist in injecting themselves into the relationship between parents and children. They seduce kids with ads crafted by psychologists to turn the kids into relentless nags for junk food that many parents do not want their kids to have. These executives have got to take some responsibility for the way they disrupt the home ...

Forgotten in the daily barrage of junk food ads is the way the government actually encourages these very corporations. Under U.S. tax law, for example, most corporate advertising is tax deductible. So next time your kid throws a tantrum because you don't want to buy her another Big Mac, you might recall that your tax dollars are helping
to pay for the ads that induced your child's snit ...

Eighteen months ago, President Bush himself said ”when I talk about personal responsibility in America, I expect there to be corporate responsibility as well, and we will hold those to account who do not uphold those high standards in  
America.“


Such corporate responsibility remains to be seen, of course. And something tells me that Bush won't be asking much of corporations like Altria before next November. Until then, millions of lives will be at stake as a result of overconsumption. The problem doesn't merely have repercussions in the U.S. either. Many of those lives will be at stake because someone else — often in the U.S. — was consuming too much, leaving them a dearth of food to consume.

Laura Nathan
 
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