December 1, 2003
by Irwin Stelzer
By now, we will have consumed the leftovers from our Thanksgiving feasts, which saw us dispose of 45 million turkeys, perhaps 200 million sweet potatoes, and at least 50 million pies of various sorts. Add in stuffing made from white bread, cranberry sauce loaded with sugar, and carrots roasted in brown sugar and butter, and you have a dieter’s nightmare—one estimate puts the carb content of a typical Thanksgiving meal at what Atkins would call “a whopping” 200 grams. Just to make certain that none of this vast intake is offset by exercise, most American men plunked down on couches to watch the traditional football game, many wearing clothes from the “relaxed” (read extra-large) section of the Gap and other clothing stores.
For most, the gorging continued through last weekend. Two-thirds of American companies closed on the Friday following Thanksgiving, giving their workers time to refill their platters between visits to the shopping malls on that busiest of all shopping days in the United States.
When the precursor of this holiday was first celebrated in 1621 by Pilgrims who had come to America to escape oppression in Britain, it was to give thanks for a harvest sufficiently bountiful to see that hardy band through the coming winter. Since these Pilgrims had suffered a very lean time indeed, one can imagine the joy and relief of a slightly emaciated group of early settlers at the prospect of a winter of adequate meals.
Which surely distinguishes them from the already obese Americans who tucked away this year’s feasts. America is suffering what some like to call an obesity epidemic. That artful formulation—nothing much a victim can do about being stricken during a flu or measles or chicken pox epidemic—relieves the nation’s fatties from responsibility for the expansion of the their waist-lines. The extra weight is something imposed on them by outside forces beyond their control.
That’s what the ambulance-chasing members of the legal profession would have the courts believe as they attack various segments of the food industry. McDonald’s is an obvious target. So several obese New Yorkers went to court to prove that they had quite innocently become addicted to Big Macs and fries, addiction being a key element of a complaint admittedly designed to mimic the successful suits brought against the tobacco companies. The judge was unimpressed, but that didn’t stop the assault on Kraft, Dole, Kellogg, and assorted beer and soft-drink companies, especially by advocacy groups that notice that the incidence of obesity and its frequent accompaniments, diabetes, high blood pressure, and joint pain, is higher among the poor than among higher income groups.
In Britain, where antipathy to fast foods by activists is, if anything, greater than in the United States, John Ashton, a regional health director, is a member of the they-can’t-help-themselves tendency. He says, “Individuals cannot protect themselves from bioterrorism, epidemics of Sars, the concerted efforts of the junk food industry, drug dealers, and promoters of tobacco and alcohol.” It is, he concludes, the job of the state to come between consumers’ mouths and fast foods. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s weapon of choice against obesity is sport, or as he puts it, “to more effectively tackle activity levels in the adult population,” although even the non-obese must hope that he has no plans to raise their activity levels to the health-defying levels to which he personally is devoted.
All in all, one-third of adult Americans, over 60 million people, are considered clinically obese. To fall within that definition a five-foot, five-inch tall woman must weigh at least 180 pounds.
This is having profound effects on many American companies, not all of them in the food sector. Auto makers and theater owners are struggling to redesign seats to accommodate the more ample rear ends of drivers and passengers (airlines continue to provide seats about five inches narrower than do theaters), health-care providers have launched expensive obesity-prevention programs, doctors now offer bariatric surgery to children and teenagers to permanently reduce their stomach sizes, clothing retailers now earn almost one out of every four dollars by selling so-called “plus sizes” to the fatties they once ignored, and, adds the Washington Post, casket makers are turning out increasingly wide models.
But it is the food industry and its regulators that are making the biggest adjustments. Coca-Cola, eager to maintain its sales to teenagers who tend to form lifetime brand preferences, has agreed not to sell its carbonated drinks in elementary schools during the school day, confining itself to juices and milk products. Vending machines in high schools will be removed from cafeterias, but not corridors, and timers placed on them to limit the hours they operate.
The 277,208 fast-food outlets in America—one for every thousand people according to consultants Technomic Inc.—are also changing the way they do business, while continuing to multiply. According to the Wall Street Journal, Starbucks opens a new store every eleven hours, and Subway Restaurants, which specializes in gargantuan sandwiches, opens a new store every three hours, on average.
In a rush to head off stringent regulation, the fast-food chains are taking two steps. Some are introducing healthy alternatives to their traditional fare: McDonald’s new salad line, which comes with a bottle of water and a pedometer to encourage diners to walk the meal off, is proving popular, but then so is its new McGriddles breakfast sandwich: syrup-soaked pancakes stamped with a Golden Arches “M” (for “murder,” say health advocates) replace the traditional buns; these calorie-laden end pieces bracket eggs, cheese, bacon, and sausage to the tune of 550 calories, 33 grams of fat, and 260 milligrams of cholesterol.
Others are now prominently stating the nutritional content of their offerings. PepsiCo gleefully announced that snack foods from its Frito-Lay unit contain no trans fats, which are linked to heart disease. At least one restaurant, the 5 Spot in Seattle, requires customers who order its $5.75 dessert, “The Bulge,” to sign a liability waiver.
Until the geneticists can determine why some people wax on diets on which others wane, the more serious attacks on obesity will come from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government regulator now chaired by Mark McClellan, a talented economist/physician. His Obesity Working Group, which met last week, is likely to mandate more revealing labeling of foods, and to recommend voluntary guidelines for restaurants. Listings of calories per serving may be replaced with listings of total calories in the entire package, despite industry opposition to such a move.
Whether FDA regulation will stem the tide of legislation—150 bills are now in the hoppers of state legislatures, most of them to control foods distributed in schools—is uncertain. But no matter what the regulators or the states do, the federal government is unlikely to stop subsidizing the production of sugar, corn, and other fattening food products. After all, it has always subsidized tobacco growers.
This article appeared in London’s Sunday Times on November 30, 2003.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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