We are all familiar with the negative health impacts of smoking cigarettes. Since the 1950s, research has shown a direct correlation between tobacco consumption and lung cancer. In response to this data, politicians have responded by taking some initiative over the past few decades. Advertising of cigarettes is banned from TV and radio, all cigarette packaging must display warning labels describing the harmful effects of what the product contains, and minors can no longer purchase or be provided cigarettes. Since the 50s, the percentage of cigarette users has rapidly decreased due to these crucial measures. As positive as these steps seem, history has a habit of repeating itself. In 2021, a similar plague has surfaced. Unlike the fight against the cigarette trend of yesteryear, there is complete inaction from politicians for this epidemic.
The WHO reported that as of 2016, 1.9 billion adults worldwide were overweight, 650 million of these adults being obese. The long-time scapegoat for the trend of obesity has been how people have become progressively less interested in physical activity and more so in consuming media. The narrative told is that being overweight is a conscious effort and you are the only one responsible for such an illness. This ideology is overlooking the true culprit: corporations and capitalism itself.
In our current society, the only true responsibility corporations have is to provide profit to their shareholders. This means doing whatever it takes to generate more consumers. In order to meet this objective, the food industry takes very conniving steps such as recruiting taste engineers. The job of a taste engineer is essentially to make the product a drug. Salt, sugar, and fat are the three primary traits of a hyperpalatable product. Intentionally maximizing these attributes makes the food in which the company is selling completely addictive. This type of manufacturing has been shown to subliminally persuade consumers into compulsive purchases. Similar to this, the tobacco industry used to spray tobacco sheets with ammonia, nicotine, and menthol to make their product cause a dependency.
Strategies of the food industry also consist of manipulating public health information. Just as the tobacco industry marketed cigarettes as a healthcare professional-approved product in the 50s, the food industry has been found to pay off medical institutions to deliberately misinterpret the facts behind high intakes of salt, sugar, and fat. In 2015, Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, reviewed 168 studies funded by food and beverage companies. Out of those evaluated, 156 showed biased results, catering to the interests of the sponsor. A specific example of these studies include when The American Academy of Physicians accepted millions from CocaCola. They cited the goal of this bribery as providing more education to consumers on healthy beverage choices. Additionally, in the 1960s, companies within the sugar industry paid scientists to publish nutrition research that falsely indicated that saturated fat causes heart disease as opposed to sugar.
Perhaps the most devastating of all strategies used by corporations within the food industry is the practice of creating fake research associations. The people within these disguised coalitions are paid to publish formal documents that promote the interests of the corporation employing them. Several years ago, the food industry was discovered to have put forward initiatives to limit inquiry on trans fats and discredit research findings that showcased the dangers of trans fat consumption. Because of food manufacturer’s long denial towards the dangers of trans fats, the universal death toll for deaths related to trans fat, sugar, and salt has reached 14 million.
Even at the expense of billions of lives, corporations will tarnish public health and hinder medical innovation if it means turning a large profit. The parallels that are witnessed between the tactics of the tobacco industry and the food industry are known as ‘The Corporate Playbook’: the nickname for the repulsive schemes used by corporations in order to achieve large gain. At this rate, it would make sense for government officials to intervene, fighting for legislation that would impose corporate social responsibility. Alas, there has yet to have been much effort from politicians in the fight against obesity due to what is possibly the biggest weapon in the food industry’s arsenal: lobbyists.
In 2009 alone, the food industry spent a total of $50 million towards hiring an immense amount of lobbyists for the objective of influencing legislation. In the following year, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of allowing corporations to spend profit on advertisements to slander any individual who opposed the actions of the corporation. Furthermore, the food industry contributes tremendously to the economy. This allows corporations to be made subservient within political systems. The pursuit of high profits keeps the rich wealthy. Affluent politicians do not want to criticize what is allowing them to keep their cash; it is in the best interest of politicians to never address the rising numbers of obesity, which of course comes at the expense of the citizens they represent.
Under the United State’s laissez-faire capitalism, obesity is most common amongst lower-middle class citizens. Low-income neighbourhoods are commonly referred to as ‘food deserts’; the term used to refer to areas in which those residing there have little to no access to fresh food. As well, low-income individuals have far less access to education on healthy eating, less access to public parks or trails, are unable to afford any exercise equipment, and are unlikely to be active outdoors compared to their wealthy counterparts due to the crime rate within their neighbourhoods. Moreover, fast food restaurants are disproportionately placed in low-income areas. This is due to the policies of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon that are still affecting Americans today. Johnson crafted the Equal Opportunity Loan Program in 1964, which he claimed was to combat malnutrition amongst impoverished Americans by assisting in employment. This program was supposed to offer loans to small restaurants, but instead allowed corporations to replace any and all local businesses. Once Nixon took office following the Johnson administration, he created a program that allocated $65 million to expand franchises of rich neighbourhoods into poor neighbourhoods. Fast food corporations were the largest participants in this expansion. Ever since, low-income neighbourhoods have been the victim of target marketing from fast food corporations.
Of course, these seemingly wholesome initiatives were really just an attempt from both leaders at pushing anti-communist propaganda by strengthening the ineffective racial inequality combatant concept; black capitalism. Johnson and Nixon both pushed a meritocracy agenda when establishing their programs, marketing them as an easy way for black Americans to achieve affluence in their new employment at the surplus of fast food restaurants that had taken over black neighbourhoods. Due to the socioeconomics of the United States, black Americans always have been overrepresented in low-income areas. This has resulted in 48% of all black Americans to be obese. Systematically, black Americans have faced much larger obstacles in achieving healthy living compared to their white counterparts.
So what is the solution to the obesity epidemic? The obvious answer is a more equitable, egalitarian economic structure and policies that force social responsibility onto large corporations, but it is crucial to alleviate the epidemic as quickly as possible. Achieving the ultimate solution is a long process.
One possible quick solution that has been a component of the political zeitgeist for the past two decades is the controversial fat tax. Similar to the cigarette tax, this taxation is thought to deter consumers from purchasing foods high in sugar, fat, and salt as well as encourage food corporations to sell healthier products. Studies have found that taxes on unhealthy food would only be effective if they were fairly high, which is unlikely to be sustainable and likely to gain disapproval by a population. As well, this kind of taxation is thought to greatly affect low-income people. Seeing that it is already difficult for poor people to buy food at all, the increased price would make for an even larger barrier. Denmark attempted both a fat tax and sugar tax, however both initiatives were soon scrapped due to the overwhelming criticism. The Danish population saw both taxes as merely a way to blame individual decisions for the epidemic rather than addressing the larger issue and a strategy for the government to gain revenue, not to combat a public health crisis. Some Canadian politicians had also spoken in favour of a tax on fattening foods in the early 2000s, but the concept has since been put on the backburner.
Additionally, banning target marketing to children through social media, television, and schools is also a concept that has gained popularity. This idea is thought to be successful, seeing as a child’s interests can largely influence a family unit’s dietary choices. As well, when advertising of tobacco brands was banned on television and radio because of how the ads were reaching impressionable children, the measure was fairly successful. In 2019, Canada had attempted to move forward with this exact proposal, but the bill fell flat in the senate due to extensive lobbying efforts.
Finally, another policy that is thought to be effective is raising the minimum wage which would assist in relieving health struggles for low-income families. 17.6 million Americans cannot afford to purchase healthy food, 1 in 10 can barely afford to purchase food at all during the COVID-19 pandemic. Affording healthcare to treat any illness caused by large intake of fat, sugar, and salt is also impossible for poor Americans. A higher minimum wage would save the lives of millions.
The obesity epidemic is not due to poor individual determination. Corporations and the current worldwide economic system is the largest contributor to the problem. There is currently no accountability for corporations corrupting the health of our population. Governments are based on Big Food and our political leaders are far too spineless to take on the tyrannical food and beverage industries. As the Director-General of the WHO said in her 2016 keynote address, “The interests of the public must be prioritized over those of corporations”.
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