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Our Obesity Epidemic Requires Cold War Tactics

Hank Cardello

The debate over obesity policy rages on between public health advocates and food marketers. Vitriolic missiles are systematically hurled and mistrust prevails with little tangible results. It’s time to change the rules of engagement and adopt Cold War tactics.

Today’s battle against obesity is waged in a piecemeal, World War I trench-warfare fashion. Research studies covering topics ranging from the dangers of sugars and fats to the need for listing calories on menus serve as weapons launched from individual silos to attack food products and industry practices. Regulations are subsequently proposed to tax, ban or limit perceived Weapons of Mass Consumption without considering all scenarios. For example, while taxes on sugared sodas would reduce consumption, several studies have indicated that the impact on obesity rates would be negligible.

The food industry response to these “eat your peas” frontal assaults is predictable: Challenge the findings, unleash the lobbyists and wheel out new marketing campaigns in support of current practices.

This endless cycle of attack and defend has failed to reverse America’s obesity burden. There is too much emphasis on the trees — salt, sugar, fats — and not enough on the forest: reducing calories. The issue isn’t salt, sugar, etc., it’s over-consumption. To solve the $147 billion-a-year epidemic of obesity confronting a new generation of children, we have to focus on solutions rather than just being “right.”

The Cold War provides an effective blueprint to tackle obesity. Important lessons include:

1. Focus on winning the war, not individual battles. Herman Kahn, architect of U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy and founder of Hudson Institute, a think-tank and public policy research organization, once said: “The objective of nuclear-weapons policy should not be solely to decrease the number of weapons in the world, but to make the world safer — which is not necessarily the same thing.” Kahn, the real-life prototype for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” recognized that the proposed means to deal with a potential nuclear holocaust oftentimes get confused with the desired outcome.

Similarly, the Great Food Debate places excessive emphasis on which “weapons” should be banned, eliminated or limited (i.e., sugars, saturated fats and salt). So we lose sight of the ultimate goal — longer, healthier lives for our children and their families. This can be accomplished more readily by focusing on the primary factor affecting obesity: eliminating calories. Doing so automatically reduces such offenders as sugars and fats.

2. There is no “nuclear zero.” Many absolutists argue that foods such as sodas, cookies and French fries serve no purpose and should be bid adieu. Food companies are confronted with two issues: satisfying customers’ demand for such items and meeting their financial commitments to Wall Street. According to Hudson Institute’s landmark study Better-for-You Foods: It’s Just Good Business,” more than 60 percent of packaged food and beverage sales come from traditional higher-calorie products — potato chips, Cheetos, cookies, sugared soft drinks, mayonnaise, baked goods, pre-sweetened cereals. The CEO who moves to eradicate these icon brands is a short-timer, and it’s impractical to expect consumers to switch their taste preferences overnight.

A case in point is PepsiCo. In 2010, CEO Indra Nooyi vowed to grow Pepsi’s “nutrition” business (fruit juices, oatmeal, nuts and seeds, dairy products, sports drinks) from $10 billion to $30 billion by the end of the decade. But when Beverage Digest in March 2011 announced that Pepsi had slipped to the No. 3 soft drink behind Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, shock waves reverberated throughout the company. Resources were diverted to buttress the sagging Pepsi, resources that could have gone to building their “nutrition” business. Changing over to better-for-you products requires a balanced transition, one that improves nutrition without sacrificing market share, cash flow and profits.

3. Place a moratorium on name-calling. The Cold War was known for incendiary dialogue and events such as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s U.N. shoe-pounding incident, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. These brought us to the brink of Armageddon. The War on Obesity suffers from the same dynamics. We’re stuck in a repetitive “Do loop” with health advocates derided as food nazis, leftists and socialists by industry mouthpieces such as the Center for Consumer Freedom while food marketers are portrayed as irresponsible capitalists and Republican righties by many academic researchers and public health activists. It’s time to end this corrosive behavior and focus on solutions rather than who is to blame.

4. Commit to non-proliferation. While food marketers are loathe to admit that any of their products are “bad,” there is an opportunity for them to reduce their “calorie footprints” in a way that benefits companies and their consumers. The Hudson report again reinforces this notion that companies selling larger percentages of better-for-you products, including no- , low- and reduced-calorie versions, enjoy bigger sales gains, higher operating profits, better returns to shareholders and stronger reputations. Pledging to pull out even more calories is good for bottom lines and shareholders.

5. Trust, but verify. A favorite of President Ronald Reagan when posturing with the Soviet Union, this phrase applies as much today to the obesity debate. One way to circumvent the air of mistrust between many in the public health community and the food industry is to track headway in improving the nutrition of food products. This can be done by quantitatively reporting a company’s reduction in its calorie footprint and increases in its sales of better-for-you foods, similar to how corporations track their environmental impact.

It’s time to take the obesity debate to the next level; the lack of tangible progress demands it. Without changing the rules of engagement between food companies and the public health community, we are doomed to nutritional failure. Our children’s health depends on it.

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