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Column Applying the lessons of beating Big Tobacco to beating Big Food

An ‘obesity tax’ on its own is a regressive move – much more nuanced strategies are required to get people thinking about what they put in their bodies, says food writer Frank Armstrong.

THERE ARE NOW more former smokers than smokers in America. The habit is on the decline in Ireland too. The battle against Big Tobacco stretches back to 1950 when its damaging effects were established. The breakthrough came with the US Surgeon General’s Report in 1964.

In Ireland the decline in smoking which has occurred at all social levels can be attributed to a number of factors. Prohibition on tobacco advertising led to a decline in visibility. State-sponsored advertisements, particularly targeting new smokers, highlighted to visceral effect the implications of habitual use. Punitive taxation motivated many to quit, and the smoking ban decoupled its use from public houses and restaurants.

The next battle for long-life and well-being is against the obesity epidemic. It will require nuanced strategies because, unlike tobacco which is harmful in all circumstances, there is a long and uneven continuum between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food. The effects of consuming particular foods depend on age, frequency, genetics and levels of exercise. Big Food is an amorphous foe, and corporate responsibility can lead to improvements, but state authorities have a huge role to play.

We enjoy the taste of refined sugars and saturated fats for a good reason: they provide ample calories which give us energy to live. For most of human history, when average life-expectancy hovered around the age of thirty-five and food was in short supply, that would have been highly appealing. But with average life expectancy now approaching eighty, and increasing in an era of unprecedented abundance, it behoves us to be more selective.

The advent of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the 1970s, especially after Richard Nixon’s grant of subsidies to maize farmers in the US, seems to have been the single development that played the greatest role in the obesity epidemic we are witnessing. Only in the 1970s did health authorities wake up to the problem of over-consumption, especially in poor household which encountered abundance for the first time. Cheap HFCS is now an ingredient in most junk food: most sweet and savoury foodstuffs at McDonald’s contain either HFCP or sucrose.

Some dismiss the whole issue of obesity as being one of personal responsibility, but this ignores the addictive qualities of refined sugar and the whole social nexus that promotes the consumption of obesity-generating food.

A junk food tax should only be part of a multi-pronged strategy

A junk food tax applied to sucrose (table sugar derived from both cane and beet) and HFCS has been mooted. Alone, this would be a regressive measure because, as with smoking, over-consumption of refined sugar is greatest among the poor. It should, however, be introduced as part of a multi-pronged strategy as higher price will depress demand. Importantly, cash-strapped adolescents are particularly responsive to changes in price.

The challenge lies in assessing the extent to which a product can be defined as ‘safe’, this will require scrutiny; but, incontrovertibly, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose derived from either cane or beet is nutritionally ‘empty’. The issue of saturated fats is more complex.

It is said that whole foods alternatives are ‘whole wallet foods’. At present this is certainly the case, but subsidisation, subject to European rules on competition, may be introduced to ensure healthy products become more affordable. The bike-to-work scheme is a good analogy.

The history of tobacco offers a remarkable insight into the extraordinary effect that advertising has on human behaviour. The range of devices deployed by the industry was ingenious: Lucky Strike’s linking of female empowerment with smoking in the 1920; Camel’s success in capturing much of the US market in the 1950s; and the enduring appeal of the Marlboro Man.

According to O’Shaugnessy and O’Shaughnessy: ‘Persuasive advertising can imbue a brand with symbolic meanings (e.g. as to status) which are just as much a real part of it as its substantive properties’.
The power of advertising has also been used against Tobacco to devastating effect. For example, campaign, funded by the American Legacy Foundation out of funds secured under the Master Settlement Agreement with Big Tobacco, has successfully driven a wedge between the tobacco industry and the children which that industry targets. Children themselves make commercials directed against tobacco companies.

Big Food is every bit as persuasive as Big Tobacco in its use of advertising. Children from a very young age are targeted directly and also surreptitiously through toy promotions and product placements. Parents face a constant battle to ensure their children consume a balanced diet. A child’s taste is hardwired for survival and the sugars and fats contained in most fast food offer pure calorific heaven. Only parents with sufficient health education, and a clear awareness that food scarcity is no longer an immediate danger, encourage their children to consume the type of often expensive whole foods that do not give rise to obesity.

Nutritional status is intimately tied to social class

The extreme imagery deployed against tobacco can be used against junk food to shift its ‘symbolic meaning’. Also, using social media and guerrilla tactics, Irish children can be encouraged to improve their own life-prospects by challenging Big Food; they will have greater insight into what makes other children tick than well-meaning doctors.

Nutritional status is intimately tied to social class. A recent publication The Changing Body by Floud et al observes how, in response to nutritional prompting by the state, ‘people in the “higher” social classes are more likely to eat healthy foods and engage in voluntary physical activity, and less likely to smoke.’

Worryingly, the authors conclude that government health policy actually ‘tends to exacerbate health differences’: higher social classes take on board health advice, rather than the poor for whom the need is most pressing. The level of income disparity in a society is reflected in nutritional status. Inequality breeds obesity.

Extreme income variation in Ireland, among OECD countries only America is worse off in this respect, compounds underlying poverty by causing psychosocial stresses that deter people from improving their lifestyles. A person living in dire, crime-bedevilled accommodation amidst a rampantly materialistic society will draw reassurance from food and a fag rather than listen to what their social betters urge them to do.

It is no coincidence that continental European countries with less social inequalities are also less prone to obesity. There is no sugar-coating it – the societal gap can’t be closed by an obesity tax; but economic encouragement to make healthy products more attractive could work.

Frank Armstrong is a food writer and lecturer at University College Dublin’s Adult Education Centre.

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