The War on Obesity sure was fun while it lasted. There was school lunch reform, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, the administration’s Task Force on Obesity report, and an attempt by the administration to restrict junk food advertising to kids. But, as Reuters details in this fantastic deep-dive, the food industry came back with shock and awe, K-Street style:
Reuters analyzed spending reported by more than 50 food and beverage groups that lobbied against the federal effort last year to write tougher — but still voluntary — nutritional standards for foods marketed to children.
The groups have spent more than $175 million lobbying since President Barack Obama took office in 2009 — more than double the $83 million spent in the previous three years, during the Bush Administration.
The totals do not include broader lobbying efforts by the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and media and advertising interests that also opposed the federal plan.
These companies’ political spending has remained high despite the fact that the immediate threat has passed. Reuters cites the example of PepsiCo, which spent $40 million in 2009 to head off a federal soda tax, a figure that “was more than eight times the $4.8 million they spent the previous year.”
So even though chances of the feds enacting a soda tax any time soon are approximately zero, PepsiCo still spent $10 million lobbying Congress in 2011, which is still more than twice the amount the company was spending before the soda tax fight broke out.
Apparently it was money well spent. At every turn, whether it was those advertising restrictions, soda taxes, pizza-as-vegetable, French fries in school lunches, or getting some of the excess salt and fat out of processed food, the industry has turned back new laws in favor of voluntary guidelines. The only industry “failure” was over the new requirement for calorie labeling in fast food restaurants, but that passed as part of health reform — where food industry lobbying presumably couldn’t stand up to the horse-trading needed to get that behemoth of a bill passed.
But food industry shareholders should fear not — all this lobbying doesn’t take a very big chunk out of the companies’ bottom line. In fact, the food and beverage sector is a $1.5 trillion industry. The figures Reuters cites are rounding errors.
And while public health advocates have, somewhat controversially, cited the tobacco industry as the model for the processed food industry’s strategy, the truth is that it’s simply doing what you can do when you have money to burn.
With pockets this deep, no tactic is off the table. When you can afford to send dozens of lobbyists to camp out in legislators’ and regulators’ offices, hire teams of lawyers to write sample legislation, pack hearings and regulatory meetings, have top executives hobnob at the White House, and fund expansive advertising campaigns, it’s very likely that you’ll end up getting what you want.
It’s asymmetrical warfare and public health advocates don’t stand a chance. No amount of new studies or new research will change that. The problem health advocates face is nicely summed up in this “explanation” by Reuters for the industry’s continued resistance to claims of its culpability in the obesity epidemic:
The Institute of Medicine had found strong evidence that TV watching was associated with child obesity. But researchers have found no proof that obesity is directly caused by ads for sweets or junk food. [emphasis mine]
The industry will ceaselessly exploit the gap that exists between “associating” a cause with an effect and “proving” a causal link. The essence of the scientific method is that very often, especially when you’re researching human health and habits, the best result you can obtain is “strong evidence” “associating” a cause with an effect. Since scientists aren’t allowed to conduct experiments that harm people, there’s never a true control group and thus no “proof” as the industry conceives of it.
This is bad news for us all — though it may be kids who suffer the most. A pair of disturbing articles in The New York Times brings home the hidden tragedy of this part of the crisis. In the first, a doctor documents her experience as a witness to the dreadful consequences of childhood obesity:
How does a 175-pound 10-year-old sound? Or a 200-pound 6-year-old? Or, far worse, a morbidly obese 6-year-old having his gallbladder removed because a high fat diet has caused it to malfunction and become a source of pain?
I’m a pediatric surgeon, and these are the children I see every day … These children need help making drastic changes to their lifestyles and diet to prevent a lifetime of problems.
Instead, I’m taking out their gallbladders.
… While a person can live a normal life without one, some patients do experience side effects, like chronic diarrhea or acid reflux. No one knows for certain the long-term consequences of taking out the gallbladder over the lifespan of a child, but thousands are going to find out in the decades ahead.
The second article suggests that the other shoe regarding childhood obesity may just have dropped. Type 2 diabetes — which used to be known as “adult onset diabetes” — is now at epidemic levels among children. But much to doctors’ surprise, it does not behave the same way it does in adults. The disease progresses more rapidly in children than in adults and is harder to treat. The article reads:
“It’s frightening how severe this metabolic disease is in children,” said Dr. David M. Nathan, an author of the study and director of the diabetes center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s really got a hold on them, and it’s hard to turn around.”
Not only that, but the drugs used to treat Type 2 diabetes appear to be less effective in children than they are in adults, “shockingly” so, according to doctors. This news comes from the first study to look at Type 2 diabetes treatment in children, which was just published in the New England Journal of Medicine. After all, as the NYT observes, the disease was virtually unknown in children until the 1990s, so there’s never been much in the way of data. In sum, researchers examined three different treatment regimens involving drugs and diet and found that none of them were particularly effective.
In short, controlling the symptoms of the obesity epidemic is proving just as difficult as controlling the causes. And that’s a real problem for us all. Reuters just published an extended analysis of the economic costs of the health problems associated with obesity — both direct and indirect. And they are staggering. $190 billion in excess medical costs, $6 billion in absenteeism, $30 billion in lost productivity on the job as people are unable to perform tasks at work, and a $76 billion “obesity tax” — the amount of lost wages and opportunities from the fact that the people studied earn less and are less likely to be hired and promoted.
In the face of all this, it’s not unreasonable to demand that the industry commit to more than window-dressing voluntary tweaks. But food companies clearly aren’t ready to face the reality of obesity. And given the ease with which terms like “nanny state,” “food police,” and “snobbery” get thrown around in even the politest company when food restrictions get discussed (not to mention what appears in comments sections on food politics websites!), it doesn’t seem that we’re ready to face it either. Until that changes, I guess we’ll just have to tell all those kids to suck it up.
Correction: The gender of the doctor in the first New York Times article cited has been changed to accurately reflect the story.