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Tough Love for the Obesity Lobby

The World Health Organization's modest proposal to combat obesity and disease is challenged by a Bush Administration intent on pleasing its corporate backers.
 
 
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The Bush Administration has a problem with personal responsibility. They make a big deal about it for nearly everyone -- except themselves and the corporate big shots who finance their campaigns.

A case in point is the recent World Health Organization's proposal to combat the spread of obesity, diabetes and related illnesses throughout the world. The WHO proposal -- called officially the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health -- would encourage governments to adopt a number of common-sense steps, from better food labeling and limits on junk food advertising to the promotion of healthful diets with more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar. It also urges governments to make sure that schools promote such diets, not junk food and soda pop.

Hardly radical stuff, and long overdue. WHO's own studies show that unhealthful diets and physical inactivity have become the leading causes of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer throughout the world.

One would think the U.S. would be eager to sign on. We know this problem first-hand: some two-thirds of us are overweight, plus, the President himself is a fitness buff. And let's face it. Much of the crescendo in global lard comes from the junk food diet that U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's and Kraft have exported.

On top of all this, two years ago, President Bush called for a new ethos that says "we're responsible for our decisions." So you'd think he'd be the first to take some responsibility for the consequences of the actions of the country he leads. Fat chance. Instead, the Bush Administration has blocked the WHO anti-obesity plan, and re-opened it for weakening amendments. The Administration has hauled out its focus-group-tested slogans to pass the buck -- and ensure lots of them for its friends in the junk food industry.

First, "science." Whenever the Administration wants to muddy the waters it invokes the experts in the white coats. So here, William R. Steiger, a top aide at the Department of Health and Human Services (and George Bush Sr.'s godson), wrote to WHO that there are "numerous instances" where its food policies "are not supported with sufficient scientific evidence." Come on. Maybe the scientists employed by the junk food industry can't figure this one out, but our grandmothers did and their grandmothers before them. Dr. Walter Tsou, president-elect of the American Public Health Association, observed "Any mother with any common sense knows that you don't feed your kids cookies and ice cream every day unless you want to see them gain weight."

Is that really so hard? Is it really so hard to figure out that a Big Mac and a large shake, with 1600 calories combined, might cause some problems on the obesity front?

As it happens there is no shortage of science that confirms this common sense. Take fast food. One study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that boys and girls who ate fast food three times in the previous week had far higher calorie intakes: 40 and 37 percent, respectively - than did those who did not eat fast food. Another study, published in this month's issue of Pediatrics, estimates that the consumption of fast food could account for an additional six pounds of weight gain per child per year. But this research is not paid for by the junk food industry. So in the interesting logic of the Administration, that apparently makes it "junk science." Kaare R. Norum, the Norwegian professor who chaired the scientific panel that advised WHO, notes that the attacks on the WHO's scientific evidence "have not come from scientists. They have come only from industry."

Next the administration invokes "personal responsibility." Steiger, the top HHS aide, wrote to WHO that the Administration "supports personal responsibility to choose a diet conducive to individual energy balance, weight control and health." Steiger similarly told the Washington Post that "what's lacking" in the WHO approach "is the notion of personal responsibility as opposed to what the government can do." This echoes the spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, who said: "There is no mention [in the WHO strategy] of what we consider to be the fundamentally important issue of individual responsibility."

The echo is not coincidental. Note that the Bush Administration is not demanding some personal responsibility from junk food bigwigs such as sugar magnate Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, Safeway CEO Steven Burd, and Richard F. Hohlt, a lobbyist for Altria (formerly Philip Morris), which is majority owner of Kraft. It is not asking them to take responsibility for the billions of dollars they and other junk food marketers spend seducing our kids with saturation ads, nor for the obvious and predictable consequences of these actions - i.e. the diseases associated with the consumption of junk food.

Each of these fat cats has purchased an indulgence in the form of bundled $200,000 contributions to the 2004 Bush campaign. So the Administration points the finger instead at parents and their children. The finger comes no less from the Department of Health and Human Services, which probably should be renamed the Department of Junk Food Marketing and Corporate Services.

The sugar industry has wanted to hobble WHO since the organization said that free sugars should comprise less than 10% of total daily calories. Last April, the Sugar Association actually threatened WHO that it would sic its allies in Congress on the U.S.'s annual $406 million contributions.

Now, we agree that people do need to take more responsibility for the junk they put into their mouths, and for their failure to get off their behinds. But the global obesity lobby has to take some responsibility too, for its nonstop propaganda campaign, especially when it is aimed at children. That includes Henry Kravis, founding partner of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which is majority owner of Channel One, an in-school marketing service that bombards schoolchildren with ads for soda pop and junk food. True, Mr. Kravis has bundled $100,000 to the Bush 2004 campaign. But surely President Bush understands that sometimes, we just have to say "No."

Executives such as Mr. Kravis seem to have a hard time grasping another Administration nostrum -- that parents are the proper guides to their children's behavior. They persist in injecting themselves into the relationship between parents and children. They seduce kids with ads crafted by psychologists to turn the kids into relentless nags for junk food that many parents do not want their kids to have. These executives have got to take some responsibility for the way they disrupt the home. The President should remind them of this.

And it's time for the U.S. government to take some responsibility itself, and stop hindering parents' efforts to instill healthful eating habits in their kids. Forgotten in the daily barrage of junk food ads is the way the government actually encourages these very corporations. Under U.S. tax law, for example, most corporate advertising is tax deductible. So next time your kid throws a tantrum because you don't want to buy her another Big Mac, you might recall that your tax dollars are helping to pay for the ads that induced your child's snit.

The obesity lobby has developed a welfare mentality, and it's past time for the Bush people to show some tough love. It should stop -- right now -- the tax break for advertising of junk food, and advertising to children generally. No more taxpayer-subsidized meddling in the American family. No more corporate welfare to goad kids to throw tantrums for Whoppers, Cokes, M&Ms and the rest.

The President himself should take some personal responsibility for this step. He should call Lanny Griffith and Rob Leebern, lobbyists for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Coke, into his office. He should tell them that even though they each have bundled $100,000 to the Bush 2004 campaign, the time has come for them to decide whether they are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution -- and that the government isn't going to help them anymore if they persist in the former.

Then the President should get on the phone to Director-General J.W. Lee of WHO and apologize for the moral relativists at his Department of Health and Human Services who lack the courage to stand up to the junk food lobby.

Eighteen months ago, President Bush himself said "when I talk about personal responsibility in America, I expect there to be corporate responsibility as well, and we will hold those to account who do not uphold those high standards in America."

It's time for the President to walk his talk. He should hold junk food and advertising executives accountable for their role in promoting obesity and disease throughout the globe. Literally millions of lives are at stake across the planet. The world needs a coalition of the willing in the cause of global health and freedom from unchecked corporate influence on children. Who better than America to lead?

Jonathan Rowe is a writer, contributing editor to The Washington Monthly, and a founder of the Tomales Bay Institute. Gary Ruskin is a founder of Commercial Alert.