You Can’t Sugarcoat Distasteful Legislation

Published June 21, 2014

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.

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.

Weighing in from the (far) left are regulation-hungry activists like Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa, who blames the obesity epidemic on public health officials’ and lawmakers’ failure to “legislate change” — not enough statutes, regulations, public monies spent, and taxes on foods he thinks are bad. He believes that because industry is so good at doing its job — which is to “misinform consumers” in their quest to profit from selling as many cheap calories as possible — it is imperative that government intervene.

The activists argue that obesity rates are skyrocketing 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.”

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 Frappuccino 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.

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.

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.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.