Opinion

Op-Ed: Free market has real solutions to obesity crisis

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Opinion,Health,Op-Eds,Free Market,Obesity

Obesity is a public health time bomb. But is curbing it primarily the responsibility of the government? The food police think so. Along the way, their extreme rhetoric demonizes industry and characterizes food marketers as little better than child molesters.

Weighing in from the Left are regulation-obsessed activists like Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa. He blames obesity on the failure of public health officials and lawmakers to "legislate change" -- not enough statutes, regulations, public monies spent, or taxes on foods that he thinks are bad.

He believes that because industry is good at doing its job -- which is to "misinform consumers" in their quest to profit from selling as many cheap calories as possible -- so, in his view, government needs to intervene.

His fiery YouTube video in December, which drew a quarter of a million views and was the basis of headlines in the Los Angeles Times, rallied activists to campaign for more government regulation of those supposedly responsible for the obesity epidemic -- underregulated corporate peddlers of cheap calories.

Although first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign recognized personal responsibility, she has also advocated using the heavy hand of government to achieve "desirable" social goals. She championed a 2010 child nutrition law that let bureaucrats decide what foods may be sold on school grounds.

She also took credit for changes to school lunch programs that left students hungry and protesting. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was forced to reverse course.

But even these kinds of government intrusion haven't mollified the food-police activists. In an op-ed last year, attorney Michele Simon, a leader of the nanny-state movement, criticized Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" initiatives as "public relations gestures" that are inadequate to fight obesity.

In a broadside against the campaign, Simon wrote, "negotiated deals with the likes of Wal-Mart cannot become a substitute for actual policymaking." According to the activists, you can't make progress in the war against obesity as a partner with industry because industry is the enemy, and a powerful one at that.

At the top of the food police's wish list are restrictions on food advertising. As Freedhoff puts it, "We need to stop allowing the food industry to target our most vulnerable and precious population, our children."

National Action Against Obesity founder MeMe Roth is less subtle in evoking thoughts of child molestation by referring to food advertising to children as "predatory" and arguing that we shouldn't let food company executives have a "relationship with our kids."

In their zeal to advance an agenda, however, it's the food police who have become the creeps. There is a role for government policymaking, but it's not intrusive, punitive, arbitrary regulation: It's allowing market forces to stimulate the production of fresh fruits and vegetables and to make them cheaper and more available to more people.

Major obstacles to that strategy are policies that prevent the kind of innovation that could give us higher farm yields, fewer inputs and lower prices. These policies include subsidy-driven incentives to grow commodity grains instead of vegetables, and restrictions on agricultural technologies that raise yields.

And in recent years, federal officials have pushed organic and other inefficient practices that may make consumers feel good about the foods they buy but which in reality are not better for them or the environment.

In addition to using the bully pulpit to coax and cajole the food industry to make changes, will the Obamas finally get the message that free-market reforms of regulatory policy could make great strides toward reducing obesity? Fat chance.

Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. 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 founding director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology.

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