Don’t Target Fast Food for Obesity Problem

Published August 1, 2003

May 29, 2003

The Honorable Tommy G. Thompson
Secretary of Health and Human Services
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20201

Dear Secretary Thompson:

This letter is in reference to your recent public comments on ways to combat obesity and promote healthier lifestyles among the U.S. population.

While the nonprofit groups whose names appear below appreciate the concern by the Department of Health and Human Services for U.S. consumers, we would like to share our own concern about the focus of recent interviews as well as some of the suggested remedies in helping consumers with weight problems.

In a recent CNN interview (May 13, 2003) and a report in The Washington Post (May 14, 2003), your comments seem to suggest that the food industry–in particular, fast food–is the principal target of the agency’s interest in combating obesity. In the CNN interview you also proposed food companies and restaurants diversify their menus and encourage their customers to eat healthy foods and to exercise.

With the clamor from some activist groups for government to “do something” about obesity, we would like to urge caution in perhaps inadvertently promoting a climate for frivolous lawsuits and campaigns for government mandates that affect consumers’ choices and pocketbooks.

First, as you know, most physicians, dietitians, nutritionists, and other scientists agree obesity is a highly complex problem arising from a multiplicity of contributing factors, such as genetic, socioeconomic, medical, dietary, lifestyle-related, psychological, and others.

Some factors relate to general trends in society, such as more sedentary lifestyles–more time on computers and watching TV, less physically demanding work, greater affordability of automobiles for more people, more time spent on longer commutes, etc. Other lifestyle trends–such as both parents working–create time pressures that have dramatically increased the incidence of food prepared outside the home. The greater affordability of food than was the case even 20 years ago may also be a factor.

Second, the focus on fast food as the easy culprit overlooks the findings of many recent studies that physical inactivity by consumers is a major health risk. Overweight and inactivity often go hand-in-hand, but the almost exclusive focus on weight loss in the media can be counterproductive. According to many prominent researchers, lack of exercise has more to do with poor health and increased mortality risk than being overweight. (See, for example, studies by the Cooper Institute.)

Third, we are especially concerned about the comparisons of obesity to smoking in many public forums. Indeed, a recent analysis underwritten by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses that inappropriate comparison to advocate that strategies used to combat smoking be used to attack obesity.

Food is not the same as cigarettes. Tobacco is not a necessity–food is.

Telling people that food is the problem and they are the victims of food purveyors may be counterproductive in getting people to take responsibility and control by eating more balanced diets and by exercising more. It may also further encourage class-action attorneys to instigate even more McDonald’s- and Oreo-type suits.

With a steady drumbeat calling for the same types of programs for obesity as were used to tamp down smoking, policy makers should be distancing themselves from those analogies instead of embracing them.

With large monetary incentives for such lawsuits, the trend will continue, and every day consumers will pay higher prices due to higher costs of doing business, as well as restrictions on marketing and products.

Fourth, as taxpayers, we are also concerned that the sudden popularity of instituting another “sin tax” is driven not so much by health concerns as by budget shortfalls in many states. While that issue was not mentioned in the coverage of your remarks, activist groups promoting the fast food/obesity connection are pushing for such “disincentives.”

In addition, the claim that consumers have to endure higher taxes on their food so that health costs can be recovered for government-run health care programs has to be viewed somewhat skeptically, since significant amounts of money from taxes on cigarettes and the so-called tobacco settlement (where similar claims have been made) have been used for projects unrelated to health care.

Also, many taxpayers and consumers, shocked by the enormous payouts to the trial lawyers involved in the tobacco suits, may be unconvinced that lawsuits against the food industry would do anything but line the pockets of lawyers.

Fifth, while we support private initiatives that inform citizens about nutrition and health, the responsibility for a healthy diet and lifestyle still lies with the individual. Promoting a view that citizens and their families are the helpless victims of the fast-food industry flies in the face of both fact and common sense.

The suggestions that restaurants and food companies should encourage their customers to exercise more is unpractical at least. Most customers will preserve their right to make their own decisions, and might consider it not only patronizing but rude if restaurants start preaching to their customers about how much they should exercise–and how much they should weigh. Will servers begin to ration overweight customers? Presumably, this strategy would be recommended for those restaurants serving customers at the lower end of the economic scale. Would the government also exhort high-priced restaurant chefs to equally “educate” their customers?

You also called on restaurants to provide more menu choices. Most restaurants already provide a wide variety of foods; even so-called fast-food restaurants have extended their choices to attract health-conscious or vegetarian customers. However, restaurants cannot force customers to go for the salad if they want a burger with fries. In a market economy, producers will cater to the wishes and demands of consumers. In today’s marketplace, consumers have a range of food choices and a range of prices for food.

It should also be recognized that people’s attitudes toward food are important. Food is not purely about nutrition–for most people it is also about enjoyment of tastes, flavors, and often enjoying the company of friends or relatives. However, too often government and public health professionals overlook those important aspects of eating.

Reaching out to consumers who seek help for weight problems is important. However, we are concerned that your good intentions to persuade people to do what is best for them is focusing on the easy targets–fast-food companies–which may deflect attention from the complexity of the obesity problem, as well as encourage frivolous lawsuits and misguided tax proposals.


Frances B. Smith, Executive Director
Consumer Alert

Paul J. Gessing, Director of Government Affairs
National Taxpayers Union

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., Director of Nutrition
American Council on Science and Health

Dennis Avery, Director
Center for Global Food Issues – Hudson Institute

Gregory Conko, Director of Food Safety Policy
Competitive Enterprise Institute