Debate Club

Calling Obesity a Disease Decreases Incentives to Eat Healthier

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The American Medical Association's pronouncement last week on obesity is bad news for public health efforts and the food industry. Ultimately, the American consumer will be the biggest loser -- and not in a good way.

Calling obesity a disease delivers to overzealous health activists and lawmakers a new weapon to use against food and restaurant companies, which will face new accusations of being "merchants of death," as vile as the cigarette companies. Fighting off renewed lawsuits and attacks against snack cakes, large-size sodas and full-fat pizza guarantees that food companies will turn to lawyers and lobbyists. A long war will follow; both sides will dig in their heels; and as the cigarette wars remind us, the problem will claim more victims as the warring factions duke it out.

Food companies are already beginning a shift to healthier, lower-calorie products, without any push from zealous activists. The motivation: These foods meet growing consumer demand for better-for-you options and help drive sales increases. Three studies by my organization have shown that lower-calorie, healthier products have improved sales and profits for some of America's largest food, beverage and restaurant companies. Businesses that can deliver great-tasting but lower-calorie foods satisfy both health-conscious consumers and shareholders. The time and money spent fighting off activists drains resources away from supporting healthier brands.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

Renewed rancor towards food companies could also undermine their growing collaborations with public health advocates. For example, the Partnership for a Healthier America brings together businesses, health advocates and obesity experts to tackle childhood obesity. It has demonstrated measurable progress by food companies to improve their products and serves as a model of how public health advocates and the food industry can work together for the public good.

Finally, calling obesity a disease gives consumers less incentive to watch what they eat or to adopt healthier lifestyles. The "disease" designation becomes a prescription for inaction. Those with the shakiest willpower – which includes all but a small percentage of disciplined Americans – will lose big.

Hank Cardello

About Hank Cardello Director of the Hudson Institute's Obesity Solutions Initiative

Tags
obesity
health

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