You Can’t Sugarcoat Distasteful Legislation

In a piece for Forbes, Dr. Henry I. Miller and I discuss campaigns to have the government further regulate what we eat and drink in a misguided effort to fight obesity.

When we’ve written about these issues in the past, big-government advocates have rebutted our conclusion by misstating our premise. So up front, we make it clear, that obesity is a serious health problem.

Obesity is a public health time bomb in young as well as older Americans.  It affects 12.4 percent of children ages 2 to 5, 17 percent of those ages 6 to 11 and 17.6 percent of those ages 12 to 19.  And it is insidious.  It takes a toll on the joints, is associated with several risk factors for cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure, abnormal lipid patterns, and Type 2 diabetes), and is linked to cancers of the esophagus, breast, uterus, colon, rectum, kidney, pancreas, thyroid, and gallbladder.

There’s no doubt about it. So now, the question is what “we” should do about it. And who are the “we” that the activists want to do things. I once thought “we” are the same people as the “they” in “they say” it’s dangerous to swim after eating, or that Mikey from the Life cereal commercial died in a Pop Rocks accident. But it turns out, “we” means the government.

But is curbing obesity the responsibility of the government?  The activists who constitute the self-appointed food police think so, and they are not shy about making their radical views known.  Their extreme proposals and hyperbolic rhetoric demonize big food producers and characterize food marketers as the worst sort of hucksters and profiteers.

Here’s how it works.

The activists argue that obesity rates are sky-rocketing and that this growing public health emergency calls for extreme measures.  However, when the CDC says that childhood obesity has plateaued, and that rates have declined 43 percent among 2-5 year olds in the last decade, the nanny-staters seamlessly change their tune: “See, what we’ve been doing is working.”

Now, there’s legislation in the works that further advances the activist agenda.

Nanny-staters must love California’s SB 1000, a bill passed by the State Senate that will be considered by the Assembly this month.  It would mandate obesity, diabetes and tooth decay warning labels on sugary soft drinks.  But the proposed legislation is unscientific and inconsistent in so many ways. Why would the warning apply only to beverages?

Scientific evidence indicates that liquid calories are not inherently different than solid calories when it comes to weight gain.  As USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reported in 2010, “In general, if total calorie content is held constant, there is little support for any effects on energy intake and body weight due to the calories consumed either as liquid or solid… . Thus, Americans are advised to pay attention to the calorie content of the food or beverage consumed, regardless of whether it is a liquid or solid.  Calories are the issue in either case.”  If activists reject scientific evidence, why should we accede to their demands?

Another inconsistency is that the bill requires warning labels for only an arbitrary subset of beverages.  This anomaly is obvious if we compare, for example, a 12 oz Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino with a regular carbonated soda of the same size.  The former has 330 calories versus 140 for the soda, 13 grams of fat compared to none for the soda, and 46 grams of total sugars versus 39 for the soda – yet because it is milk-based, the Frappuccin would be exempt from the warning label. You don’t have to be a rocket nutritionist to know that this makes no sense.

As it relates to tooth decay, fermentable carbohydrates — including sugars — are the substrate the bacteria in your mouth use to produce the acid that can result in tooth decay.  Fermentable carbs are found in a wide variety of foods — not just sugar sweetened beverages — including but not limited to bananas, raisins and bread.  But tooth decay does not result from just the presence of fermentable carbs, bacteria and a suitable substrate (tooth).  The fourth important factor is time — time in the mouth that the tooth is exposed to the carbs and bacteria.  Thus, the importance of good oral hygiene.

In order to pass these types of laws, the activists use some pretty outrageous rhetorical devices which are unsupported by the science.

The food police subject us to the constant drumbeat of warnings that sugar is the new tobacco and that, therefore, we need warning labels, marketing restrictions and heavy excise taxes to protect consumers from making choices the activists think are unwise.

But hyperbole about the dangers of food is in vogue these days, so why compare sugar only to tobacco if you can stigmatize it further  as being “just like” heroin?  That’s what best-selling author and advocate Dr. Mark Hyman says in the propaganda film, “Fed Up,” trying to shock viewers with the claim that “you are going become an addict.”  Should we be dispensing methadone to quell the craving for a Big Gulp or a Hershey’s bar?

“Fed Up” is a good example of slick propagandizing about obesity.  Katie Couric, Laurie David and the lopsided panel of experts they interviewed in the film want us to believe it is an unbiased and factually balanced portrayal of the causes of obesity in the United States.  It is anything but.

Food police activists love the film — and not only because they all seem to be in it.  “Fed-Up” advances Freedhoff’s thesis that obesity is caused by industry and government, while “personal responsibility” is just a canard cooked up by “big food” to seduce us into becoming helpless Twinkie-munching, soda-swilling zombies.

Whether it’s California’s proposed warning labels, New York City’s ban on large sodas (currently in litigation), or campaigns to restrict marketing as if food were the same as tobacco (or heroin), activists need the public to buy into the narrative that no matter what happens, ethically-challenged industry will always be part of the problem rather than a potential part of the solution.  They believe the answer is ever more government intrusion and coercion.

We aren’t anarchists. We believe there is a proper place for govenment here. But it’s in advancing food science not political science.

There is, indeed a role for government policy making, but it’s not intrusive, punitive, arbitrary, gratuitous regulation; it’s allowing market forces to stimulate the production of a wide variety of innovative foods, from which consumers can choose.  SB 1000 is yet another example of H.L. Mencken’s observation that there is an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

*** Update: At least some legislators are listening. The California soda warning label bill, SB 1000 failed in the assembly.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.