Schools and Obesity - A Sweet Deal

January 14, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The good news is that obesity may have maxed out. The rate has not increased in the last five years. The bad news is that one-third of Americans are obese, or to use the technical term, really, really fat.

The Times article quotes Steven Gortmaker, a Harvard public health professor, who suggests that our approach to obesity should resemble the successful campaign to reduce smoking.
“If you look at the reversal of the smoking epidemic,” Dr. Gortmaker said, “substantial change didn’t really happen until there were bans on advertising and limits on consumption through things like taxation. We have to make some substantial changes.”
Make something harder to get – less available or more expensive – or make it less socially attractive, and people will buy less of it. That was the anti-smoking strategy.

Cigarette companies may not use ads that appeal to kids, nor can they install cigarette machines in schools. No such restrictions apply to junk food companies. Many schools today have vending machines dispensing sugar-water in a hundred different forms, transfat chips, cookies, and candy.

And why do the schools put the machines there? Because they get a share of the profits. The government stiffs the schools on funding, so the schools turn to Obesity, Inc. We starve our schools, and as a result kids wind up eating more junk food. Obesity, Inc. gets both profits and the chance to build “brand loyalty.” The school gets much needed money. For the school and Obesity, Inc,., it’s win-win. For the kids, it’s gain-gain.

I wonder how people would react if Maxim magazine and Cosmo paid schools to allow them to install vending machines selling their mags at a discount. Publishers could argue that the mags are legal – no bare naughty parts – and besides, they encourage reading..

An Urban Institute report recommends, among other things, banning food advertising aimed at kids. If only. Sweden bans advertising for all kids’ products, not just food. Imagine not having TV telling kids how happy they’ll be with this or that toy, or not telling them to nag Mom to get dee-licious Yummy Sweet-O Flakes cereal.

1 comment:

Mike3550 said...

Jay -- there are efforts gaining steam to impose state-wide bans on soda and junk-food sales inside of schools. Here is a list of state policies being considered or are enacted and many that are being considered or that have been enacted have included in-school bans.

Also, there is some effort next to target bodegas because of their contribution to childhood obesity. Personally, I don't think that the policies will be that successful, but I think that one really intriguing policy sponsored by The Food Trust are trying to use bodegas as a place to provide healthy alternatives to kids. There is a website about the program here and a similar initiative in California described here (full disclosure, I am working with The Food Trust on an unrelated project).