A few weeks ago, Judge Henry Hudson of Virginia ruled that the PPACA health reform law (oft-referred to as Obamacare) was unconstitutional because there was a provision that forced people to buy insurance. Commenting on his ruling, Judge Hudson was quoted as saying that using the Commerce clause to justify the requirement that everyone purchase health insurance was like giving Congress “boundless” authority to force Americans “to buy an automobile, to join a gym, to eat asparagus.”
What many policy-makers have figured out, however, is that while you may not be able to force consumers to buy asparagus if they don’t want it, there is a potentially equally effective approach that may have the same result: make it hard or impossible for consumers to buy something they do want: junk food. Welcome to this installment of Dragnet: Food Police Edition–the story you are about to see is true; the calories have been changed to protect the innocent. Anything you eat may be used against you.
In a recent Associated Press article entitled, World leaders to discuss junk food ad ban at UN, the U.N. health agency reported that world leaders will discuss efforts to clamp down on junk food marketing to children when they next meet. The World Health Organization (WHO), which reports that 43 million preschool children worldwide are overweight or obese, says that heads of state will use the U.N. General Assembly meeting to talk about limiting the number and type of ads that children are exposed to and that they are ultimately hoping to achieve a flat-out ban on junk food advertising similar to what has occurred with tobacco.
And really, these WHO guys are amateurs. If you want to see the handiwork of the Special Victims Unit of the Food Police, you have to go to California, where both Southern and Northern policy-makers are walking the healthy food beat in a big way.
Non sequitur alert: writing this article made me notice that a large number of TV police shows have characters named in honor of poor eating habits. Miami Vice had its Tubbs, CHiPS (itself a problem) had its Ponch. Hill Street Blues had Mayo and even an Emergency Action Team (EAT). Yeesh, no wonder Sergeant Esterhaus always admonished his guys to “be careful out there.”
But back to California, where there are two recent developments:
First, San Francisco has become the first major U.S. city to make it illegal for restaurants to provide a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat. Under the new law, scheduled to take effect in December 2011, restaurants may include a toy with a meal only if the food and drink combined contain fewer than 600 calories, if less than 35% of the calories come from fat and if the meal contains fruits and vegetables.
Supervisor Eric Mar, who sponsored the ban, was quoted in an LA Times article saying, “We’re part of a movement that is moving forward an agenda of food justice. From San Francisco to New York City, the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country is making our kids sick, particularly kids from low-income neighborhoods, at an alarming rate. It’s a survival issue and a day-to-day issue.” Supervisor Mar was also interviewed on the Daily Show by Aasif Mandvi, who took him on for interfering in the business of private corporations (hilariously, I might add). Watch the interview by clicking here.
Moving Southward, Los Angeles is taking a stand on public health by making one of the nation’s most radical food policies permanent by effectively banning new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles, part of the city known for high poverty and obesity. According to Bernard Parks, a city councilman who led the effort to stop the spread of fast food (and waistlines), was quoted in the NY Times as saying, “There are people who are accused of being the food police, of trying to control what goes into people’s mouths,” Mr. Parks said. “But we just don’t think that we need to give fast food more rights around here. We don’t think our community needs to have 10 or 15 or 18 ways to eat a hamburger.”
Responding to the South Los Angeles ban, Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, said, “They have good intentions, but they have taken a kind of approach that emphasizes sticks over carrots.” Actually, Mr. Conway, I think they are specifically emphasizing carrots.
These legalistic actions against fast food and bad nutrition aren’t unprecedented. Many states and cities throughout the nation have already banned trans-fats in restaurants or mandated that restaurants put calorie information on their menus.
There is nothing quite like sitting down with your family for a meal at California Pizza Kitchen and finding out that your favorite Thai Chicken Pizza has 1301 calories, 3002 mg of sodium and a whopping 139 grams of carbohydrates. Dude, pass the asparagus. Never ordering that again.
And those Happy Meals that San Franciscans have now dubbed “Crappy Meals?” Turns out they average 840 calories, 37 grams of fat, and about as much sodium as a child should consume in an entire day, McDonald’s Mighty Kids Meal topped a recent Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine list of the five most unhealthful fast food meals marketed to children, and that’s saying something
Maybe you’re one of those people who think government should keep their nose out of private business and shouldn’t tell people how to live their lives. “The Food Police,” you say, “more like the Food Gestapo!” Yeah, I get it. No one wants to be told what to do, but on the other hand, I am pretty sure those out there fighting against government intervention in our lunchbox are the same people who are demanding no new taxes and waving the American flag around touting our country’s rightful place as number one in the world, dammit.
And you know what? I am pretty sure those concepts are diametrically opposed to each other. As Americans get fatter and sicker, particularly with the tidal wave of Type II diabetes that has hit our shores, healthcare costs get bigger and bigger and taxes will continue to rise. Whether there is a publicly-financed health plan or a privately-financed health insurance market doesn’t really matter; consumers are going to take it in the pocketbook if the Food Police can’t clean up Dodge.
As for America keeping its “number one” status, we are on a slippery slope. While poor nutrition isn’t the sole reason for it, it has a role to be sure. We are raising children who have a 1 in 3 chance (and rising) of having Type II diabetes by adulthood and some of them are getting a jump on things by contracting it earlier. If you think the cost of Type II diabetes is bad now (>$200 billion in the U.S.), just look forward 23 years, when it is expected to be closer to $336 billion. That money has to come from somewhere, and it does. It bleeds funding from education and other areas that would help build a more competitive America. You may think you have an inalienable right to your Baconator, but in some very real ways you may be forfeiting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if you eat too many of them. Our best hope may be that the Chinese are developing an unhealthy appetite for fast food; they expect to have over 2000 McDonalds alone in the next two years.
What’s really interesting to me is that it businesses may actually benefit significantly from a move toward public health policy that fosters healthy eating. Recently, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the world’s largest retailer, announced that it is going to significantly reduce prices on healthy foods and is now committed to reformulating thousands of packaged food items by 2015, reducing the salt content by 25 percent and sugar content by 10 percent, and will remove all remaining industrially produced trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils,” according to recent article. Wal-Mart’s CEO, Bill Simon, is quoted in a recent Bloomberg article as saying, “No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford.”
After the announcement, Wal-Mart stock rose 96 cents to $55.99 on the New York Stock Exchange. If that’s what happens when companies improve the healthfulness of their offerings, CEOs everywhere will be trading in cheeseburgers for tofu burgers.
In the same article, Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, said the first lady was the “catalyst” for the initiative. Michelle Obama said that it is really parents who “are changing how the entire food industry does business.” Maybe so, but apparently the First Parent has some real sway, as General Mills, Kraft Foods and PepsiCo have also pledged to reduce calories by changing recipes or cutting portion sizes as a result of Mrs. Obama’s efforts to promote healthy eating. Also listening is her husband, who signed into law a measure to make federal school meal programs healthier and available to more children in an effort to combat childhood hunger and obesity. And remember: Obesity leads to Type-2 diabetes and poor nutrition leads to poor study habits, and that leads to America: we used to be number 1.