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Biden’s Plan To Cut Obesity Falls Far Short

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Biden’s Plan to Cut Obesity Falls Far Short; U.S. Should Learn from Successes in Other Countries

Reducing The Obesity Epidemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. (September 27, 2022) – Tomorrow, the White House will convene a national conference on dietary health and food security which will include ideas for reducing our epidemic of obesity.

Yet, although obesity is our second most important – and most expensive to the taxpayer – public health problem after smoking, it appears that the recommendations to cut obesity will be too weak compared to the magnitude of the problem.

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What we should do is to learn from the successes of other countries, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who notes that even Boris Johnson recently came around.

Following a reversal in thinking by Prime Minister Boris Johnson after his near-death bout with COVID-19, the UK will ban advertising for junk foods online and before 9PM on TV from 2023; a move expected to cost broadcasters more than £200m annually in revenue, notes Banzhaf, "The Man Behind The Ban on Cigarette Commercials" in the US.

With this move, the UK joins Mexico and a growing number of other countries which are fighting a major cause of COVID-19 deaths with simple tactics proven to slash obesity at virtually no cost to taxpayers, notes the law professor who helped start a movement to use legal action as a weapon against the U.S.'s second most important public health problem, and also a big factor in mortality from the coronavirus.

Recently, legislators in Tabasco and Oaxaca, Mexico, voted to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages and highly processed foods such as chips and candy to anyone under 18, and similar bills are pending in 10 Mexican states and Mexico City.

Interestingly, sugary soft drinks have been called "liquid candy" in the U.S., while Mexico's coronavirus czar labeled them as “bottled poison,” says Banzhaf, who has been called the lawyer "Who's Leading the Battle Against Big Fat," "a Driving Force Behind the Lawsuits That Have Cost Tobacco Companies Billions of Dollars," and "The Man Big Tobacco and Now Fast Food Love to Hate."

Stop-Sign Warnings

Banzhaf observed that the new law in Oaxaco, which has one of the highest levels of obesity in Mexico, puts these fattening foods in the same category as cigarettes and alcohol. The law establishes fines, store closures, and jail time for repeat offenders. The ban also applies to vending machines in schools.

Also, a new Mexican law requires so-called black stop-sign warnings on packages of foods high in added sugar, saturated fats, calories, and added sodium.

Nothing with black stop-signs can be sold or promoted in schools, further protecting children, says Banzhaf, who points out that this legislation is modeled after laws in Chile which has been very successful.

British experts report that obesity is "the single most important modifiable risk factor" in fighting COVID-19. Indeed, Public Health England published a report into the impact of obesity on people with COVID-19, and said the case for action has “never been stronger." Studies in other countries have reached the same conclusion.

In addition to being a major factor in the number of COVID-19 deaths and associated medical care costs, one study has reported that in the U.S. the "total cost of chronic diseases due to obesity and overweight was $1.72 trillion - equivalent to 9.3% of the U.S. gross domestic product [GDP]," although other estimates are somewhat less but still very high.

Also, most of this huge and unnecessary expense caused by obesity is paid by people who are not obese, in the form of higher taxes for unnecessary medical expenses under Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, Veterans and Indian benefits, and other welfare programs, and in grossly inflated health insurance premiums.

Following Chile

A recent study has proven how the U.S. can slash its obesity rate by taking the same simple steps which Chile took four years ago, and which other countries are beginning to follow.

It showed that a few simple measures have, for example, slashed consumption of sugary soft drinks - the major source of unnecessary sugar and calories in the diet of most teens - by almost 25%.

"An effect this big at the national level in the first year is unheard of," said the study's lead author, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina.

"It is a very promising sign for a set of policies that mutually reinforce one another. This is the way we need the world to go to begin to really combat preventable diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes."

The new policies - which are already being copied in part by Peru, Uruguay, Israel, Brazil, and now Mexico and the UK, as well as other countries other countries - include:

  • Raising the tax on sugary soft drinks
  • Advertising restrictions on unhealthy foods
  • bans on unhealthy food commercials from 6AM to 10PM
  • bold front-of-package black-box warning labels
  • no more cartoon characters on sugary cereal boxes
  • a ban on junk foods available in schools

Another study showed that Chilean children were subjected to half as many ads for junk food and sugary drinks after these restrictions were put in place.

Even the UK's Johnson, who had previously warned about the "continuing creep of the nanny state," has now changed course, and realized that countries cannot continue to ignore the risks and huge unnecessary expenses caused by obesity, especially as a major contributing factor to the deaths, disabilities, and medical expenses of COVID-19, says Banzhaf.

If the U.S. can require citizens to wear masks, and require some businesses to shut down for months at a time, as well as banning commercials for cigarettes, it can certainly engage in much less intrusive nudges - such as health warnings, and limits on advertising - to deal with a risk to public health such as obesity, which is at least as deadly by itself, and at least as costly as COVID-19, he argues.