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Marketers share responsibility for obesity crisis

More than a few pundits like to frame America's obesity epidemic as an issue solely of accepting responsibility, and the problem is that they don't take it far enough.

Commenters -- such as J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, and an occasional contributor to these pages -- have no problem talking about the eater's responsibility, and on that score I could not agree more.

In fact, I claim the sort of authority on the matter that anyone would welcome in a comrade: I was fat as a kid, obese into my 30s and now I've had a normal-sized body for almost 20 years. Among the many things I could say about that transformation, I will tell you this: No one ever put one morsel into my mouth; I was, and remain, responsible for every bite.

Contained in this realization, though, was that I'm responsible for myself but not the whole world. I can take all the proper actions and still not have a successful outcome, if others do not exercise their responsibility as well.

In this case, I'm referring to the food products and restaurant industries, among whose representatives is the Center for Consumer Freedom. When the first thing you know about a group is that its name suggests consumer advocacy -- when its game is industry advocacy -- you probably ought to start wondering immediately about its own ability to take responsibility.

The organization hammers on the contention that there are no good or bad foods, that if people eat all things in moderation, there will be no obesity problem. The first flaw in this generality is that different substances affect different people different ways. Consider your own experience: Are you more likely to overeat on ice cream or iceberg lettuce? Onion rings or onions? Apple pie or apples? Obviously, substances also play a role in eating.

Meanwhile, we know from Dr. David Kessler's groundbreaking book, "The End of Overeating," that processed foods are not the benign fruits of nature. Companies infuse their products with fat, salt and sugar because they know that people are more likely to overeat products with those substances.

This is directly analogous to tobacco history: Companies swore that smoking wasn't addictive, while they manipulated cigarettes to be more addictive, because it led to higher sales. Kessler should know: He was chief of the Food and Drug Administration when it fought to show the true nature of nicotine.

Having said all this, I still have responsibility for what I put into my mouth, and how much. But the food industry has responsibility, too, and its lobbyists who harp on personal responsibility should also acknowledge their own.


Michael Prager is the author of "Fat Boy Thin Man."

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