1. Make prevention the only objective
If you’re already fat, you’re screwed. Diets and exercise are so unlikely to work in the long run that you might as well say they don’t. Habits are hard to break, the food environment is a persistent siren and keeping weight off basically means you’re hungry for the rest of your life. Government investment in weight-loss programs for adults are unlikely to have large effects.
Which is why the government should aim its entire obesity effort at preventing childhood obesity. Food industry arguments about personal responsibility, consumer choice and free speech break down when it comes to minors. Children cannot meaningfully understand marketing messages or give consent. They are profoundly subject to their environment and significantly less capable of long-term thinking than adults.
As obesity researcher Yoni Freedhof puts it:
Try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn’t abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can’t hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.
Big Government is perfectly placed to take drastic efforts to prevent childhood obesity. You can’t accuse the government of being a ‘nanny state’ when it comes to children: Protecting children is what nannies do. The government has a clear responsibility–and a profound obligation– to manipulate the economy, environment, infrastructure and legal framework to protect children from companies that lie to them and an environment that manipulates them.
The government needs to lay it out for food companies: When Americans turn 18, you can have them. Until then, they’re ours.
2. Hold companies responsible for obesity outcomes
One of the best ideas I heard on the Rudd Center podcasts was a dude who said that food companies should be given responsibility for quantitative indicators of children’s well-being. So Coca-Cola wants to control all the vending machines in a school district? Fine, but over the next five years the obesity of children in all of those schools has to go down by 5 percent. If obesity goes up during that time, you lose access to them.
This principle could be applied at a city, state or nationwide scale. The best program the government could undertake would be to gather together the major associations of food manufacturers, beverage companies and restaurants and tell them the following:
‘Look, 30 percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese. We will reduce that to 15 percent, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there. You can either help us in this goal voluntarily or we will force you through legislation. For the next five years, we’ll work with you to develop voluntary marketing codes, reduce the fat and sugar in your products and promote physical activity. If childhood obesity hasn’t gone down in five years, we’ll legally restrict your ability to sell food in schools. If it hasn’t gone down in 10 years, we’ll ban all marketing to children nationwide. If it hasn’t gone down in 15 years, we’ll tax the shit out of any product that has added sugar.’ And so on.
The food industry always argues that voluntary marketing standards and product guidelines are preferable to legislation. If those standards don’t have any impact on the rise in childhood obesity, however, they’re as useless as day-old French fries.
Holding companies responsible for outcomes instead of processes gives them the freedom to develop their own approaches and an incentive to police each other. Under this plan, industry confederations like the American Grocery Manufacturers and the American Restaurant Association could set industry-wide standards for, say, portion sizes or added sugar that all their members would have to abide by. An objective benchmark allows the government to say ‘you guys figure it out. Or we’ll do it for you’.
Other government agencies already take this approach. The Fed, for example, has committed to keeping inflation around 2 percent, and has said it will do whatever it takes to hit that target (including allowing unemployment to spike above 10 percent). It’s time the rest of the government took the same approach.
Every OECD country has committed to a free-market model that provides food companies unlimited access to consumers, and fuels a cycle of overconsumption, obesity and morbidity. I wonder if any of them will commit to ending it.