The Politics of Obesity

by DAVID ROSEN

A specter is haunting America, the specter of obesity.  According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control’s 2007–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), nearly three-quarters (73.7%) of all Americans 20 years and older are either overweigh, obese or extremely obese.  In 2008, the U.S. population was estimated at approximately 300 million people, of which 220 million were overweight.

This overweight population breaks down as follows: 34.2 percent are overweight, 33.8 percent are obese and 5.7 percent are extremely obese.  Scarier still, approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese.  One can only assume, as the economic crisis deepens, this situation is getting worse.

Obesity has social consequences.  The Archives of Internal Medicine reported in 2010 that the U.S. spends an estimated $147 billion annually treating obesity-related illnesses.  A half-century ago, President Eisenhower identified the military-industrial complex as a threat to the nation; it now dominates politics and the economy.  As the 21st century unfolds, an obesity-industrial complex can be identified.  Like its military compatriots, its influence on America’s body politic is no less consequential.

The First Lady, Michelle Obama, has taken up the issue of obesity, promoting a well-intentioned, but clearly doomed, campaign dubbed “Let’s Move.”  As she acknowledged, “one in three kids are overweight or obese.”  Her program is boldly aimed to eliminate the “problem of childhood obesity in a generation.”  The campaign’s key features are: getting parents more informed about nutrition and exercise; improving the quality of food in schools; making healthy foods more affordable and accessible for families; and promoting more physical education.

The First Lady, likely as political astute as her husband, must surely know what she cannot discuss in her assessment of childhood obesity, let alone the obesity ravaging American adults.  While the finger of judgment is pointed at parents, schools and kids, no mention is made of the agriculture industry, the food and drink companies, the fast-food industry or media advertising that benefit handsomely promoting bad eating and living habits.

Obesity is the perfect example of the systematic restructuring of American society unfolding since the 1970s.  Remarkably, as the real income of the majority of Americans remained flat, their bodies expanded.  Based on NHANES reports, the percentage of overweight adults (between 20 and 74 years) increased from about 43 percent in 1960-1962 to 54 percent in 1988-1994 and to nearly 74 percent in 2007-2008; those identified as obese (i.e., with a body mass index [BMI] greater than 30) increased from about 14 percent in the mid-1970s to 29 percent in 2000 and to 39.5 percent in 2008.

Advertising parades svelte size 8 women and muscular size 40 regular men before the public imagination.  They epitomize the sexual spectacle.  In the U.S., however, the real average woman weighs 162.9 pounds and wears a size 14, the size at which “plus-sized” clothing begins; the average size for men is 44.

The Great Recession takes its toll on the American people in many ways.  One of the most painful and least discussed is the psychological toll, both short- and long-term.  Obesity expresses one of the most consequential social and personal tolls this economic crisis.

* * *

Americans know they suffer from obesity.  A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPI) found that 75 percent of surveyed adult state residents acknowledged obesity as a “very serious” problem.  Remarkably, a significant majority of people from all political affiliations saw obesity as a “serious issue”: 83 percent of Democrats, 71 percent “independents” and 65 percent of Republicans.

A similar assessment regarding childhood obesity was confirmed in a Field Poll survey: 67 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of “independents” and 48 percent of Republicans acknowledged childhood obesity as a serious issue.

However, a significant difference of opinion emerged over who is responsible for obesity, reflecting political party identification and social values.  The PPI study found that 62 percent of Democrats said that both individuals and the government are responsible, while 63 percent of Republicans fault the individual.  The questioner apparently never asked wither it was corporate America.

Like the First Lady’s assessment of obesity, most food and beverage companies emphasize individual responsibility rather than public action when considering obesity.  The belief is shared by the tobacco and alcohol industries.  Food and beverage companies, along with others within the obesity-industrial complex, create, promote and sell high-calorie, low-cost processed foods and drinks; snacks, in particular, play a crucial role in childhood obesity.  These products are designed to entice consumers, especially young people and children, to eat themselves into obesity.

Much of the medical establishment also points the finger of responsibility at the individual consumer.  The website WebMD.com, a popular medical reference site, reiterates this charge.   It notes: “But obesity is influenced by many other factors” and identifies among them: “Your emotions and habits,” “Your lifestyle,” “Your genes,” “Alcohol,” and “Low self-esteem.”  No mention is made of federal subsidizes, failed regulation or misleading advertising.   (In February 2010, Senator Chuck Grassley [R-IO] investigated WebMD’s financial relationship with Eli Lilly.)

Food-industry critics have raised a chorus of objection to this type of self-serving finger pointing, of blaming the victim.  Individuals like Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan and Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) have taken the food industry to task.

A recent report by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), “Apples to Twinkies,” sheds even more light on the nefarious interworking of government handouts, corporate gain and the obesity crisis.  It shows that the obesity industry, like the energy industry, uses government subsidies and lax regulation to transfer the health-related costs of its products to consumers and taxpayers.  [http://www.uspirg.org/home/reports/report-archives/tax–budget-policy/tax–budget-policy–reports/apples-to-twinkies]

The report found that between 1995 and 2010, American taxpayers spent over $260 billion on agricultural subsidies; since 1995, subsidies for apples (which is the only significant federal subsidy of fresh fruits or vegetables) was only $262 million.  Given the way lobbying works in Washington, the lion’s share of the subsidies went to the country’s largest farming operations.  As the report notes, “at $7.36 per taxpayer per year, that would buy each taxpayer 19 Twinkies”; a whopping 11-cents per taxpayer per year went to the support of a quarter of the cost of a Red Delicious apple.

These mega-operations tend to grow a few key commodity crops like corn and soybeans.  The crops are rendered into additives like high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, soy oil and vegetable oils that provide the cheap sweeteners and fats that make-up much of the snacks and junk foods.  As the report states:  “Americans’ tax dollars are directly subsidizing junk food ingredients.”

(It should be noted that the nonprofit group, Food and Water Watch, has challenged the PIRG study.  It insists “there is no evidence of a relationship between subsidies and the overproduction of commodity crops, or between subsidies and obesity.”)[http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/reports/do-farm-subsidies-cause-obesity]

* * *

When looking at the obesity problem gripping the U.S., it is useful to examine it in a similar light that Pres. Eisenhower used when assessing the military-industrial complex.  The “obesity-industrial complex” consists of a series of integrated corporate sectors that, together, wield enormous power and influence not only in Washington, but in every supermarket and on every dinner table in America.

Today’s obesity-industrial complex is like the tobacco industry before the 1994 Congressional hearings, in denial and lying all the way to the bank.  Before the hearings, the great lie propagated by the tobacco industry was that cigarettes didn’t cause cancer; any number of medical shills, commissioned research reports and media exposure through ads, TV shows and movies reinforced the message.  After the hearings, the lie was no longer tenable.

We might be coming to a similar moment with regard to the obesity-industrial complex, that its products are unhealthy and uneconomical.

This industrial sector can be divided into a series relatively independent but cooperating (conspiring?) businesses that include: (i) the large factory farms, (ii) the food and beverage processors, (iii) the fast food chains, (iv) obesity medicine (in 2010, the Obesity Society and ten medical professional societies, including the American Diabetes Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, established an Obesity Medicine Physician Certification for doctors who pass an examination on nutrition, exercise, psychology and medicine); (iv) weight-loss programs (e.g., Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig) that charge 11-$15 a day per person, unaffordable to those most in need; and (v) the advertising apparatus of TV, newspaper, magazine and Internet that glorifies unhealthy and fattening foods and drinks.

An apparently overwhelming proportion of Americans know that obesity is a serious problem – likely many of the same people who suffer from it.  They know firsthand the costs of obesity, whether measured in financial, medical, psychological or sexual terms.

Obesity is a symptom of the U.S.’ failing health-care system.  Americans send more money per capita and as a percentage of income than any other nation.  And the U.S. has the lowest rate of key health indicators than any other “developed” country.

Obesity needs to be recognized as a form of “social cancer.”   The cancer inflicted by tobacco on the physical body is analogous to the psychic and social illnesses resulting from obesity.  In this spirit, the CEOs of the leading obesity purveyors should be forced to testify before Congress and admit to their complicity in the unhealthy and costly fattening of the nation.

David Rosen can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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