Obesity: beyond advertising bans and education campaigns

South African sugar farm looking like the Garden of Eden - where all that sugary goodness comes from.

John Birmingham posted an entertaining National Times column today on the call to limit junk food advertising to children (Advertising ban won’t help fat kids).  Responding to the Obesity Policy Coalition’s (OPC) recent launch of an Australian blueprint for legislation that protects children from junk food marketing, Birmingham argued:

There’s a reason why 84 per cent of people support a ban on junk food advertising during kids’ television schedules. Because it’s a hell of a lot easier than doing anything that might actually make a difference to the chubby little ticks, like turning off the damn TV for a start and kicking them out the door to go run around for a bit.

While I agree with part of what he says (I’ll disclose which part later), I do happen to think that junk food advertising is excessive and that it should be heavily regulated. The current practice of self-regulation is as absurd as leaving an overeater in charge of a donut stall. If I were head prefect of the world, advertisers wouldn’t be allowed to pollute public airtime, public places or my telephone with their unsolicited, unwelcome and self-interested messages. Like any guest, an advertiser should be invited into my home. But that’s a rant for another time.

I’m also not so sure that turning off the TV and sending the kids out for a runaround  will magically erase childhood obesity. Public discourse over obesity veers wildly between two opposing and equally dogmatic camps. Those in one camp see the obese as victims (“don’t blame the kiddies for eating too much junk food, they’re powerless in the face of the great advertising tractor beam”). Yet Birmingham and the other camp blame the obese for the sins of gluttony and sloth (“get the little tackers to eat less crap, have a good run around and maybe kick a footy”).

At the heart of this divide is choice. It is a point of liberal doctrine that people can choose whether they become obese or not because they choose what they eat and how much they exercise.  It seems sensible: Tony Abbott chooses not to be obese by choosing to get up a 4 am to ride his bike. But modern behavioral economics and evolutionary biology are rapidly demolishing the notion that people are always able to choose to act in their own best interests. Instead we are learning that the human psyche brims with evolved biases and idiosyncracies which might have served our ancestors well in the environments where they lived, but often render us shockingly inept in the modern world.

Governments use the doctrine of choice to dither and distract instead of grasping the enormous and obvious nettle. We would be better served by governments who took a more paternalistic approach: intervening on food advertising; effectively regulating what we allow large powerful companies to sell as food; and taxing sugar like the deadly and unnecessary commodity it is. If governments don’t acknowledge that the obesity crisis begins with the industries that benefit most, then they are complicit.

It is politically much easier to blame the victim – suggesting they eat less and exercise more – than it is to acknowledge that obesity is a complex and multifaceted process driven as much by corporate greed as by individual gluttony. Obesity must be tackled with both carrots (literal and metaphoric) and sticks. The carrots are always much easier but less effective to dangle – roll out another lame-arsed education program like the NSW Government’s “Crunch ‘n’ Sip” (note the funky ‘n’ where a mere ampersand would do; C ‘n’ S is a trademark-protected campaign to get kiddies to bring fresh fruit and water to school).

But if we are to truly tackle obesity, we need a (non) liberal application of a big stick. We need our governments to stand up to the folks who profit most from obesity. I would especially like to see governments standing up to sugar farmers who demand subsidies and tarrifs, thereby artificially depressing prices, and to companies all along the sugar-delivery chain, like those making soft drinks, fruit juices and energy drinks that are filled with cheap and nasty carbs*.

The reason I liked Birmingham’s column is the bit in the middle. About the fact that it’s a hell of a lot easier to blame advertising than it is to do “anything that might actually make a difference”. Banning advertising is important, but it is only the beginning. Addressing the oversupply of cheap sugar and other carbohydrates will be harder, but I predict we will eventually have to do it. Just the way we did for smoking.

*(I explain in an earlier post why cheap carbs are causing the obesity crisis)

Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

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