Thursday, November 11, 2010

Public Health, Obesity and the Free Market

Public Health, Obesity and the Free Market:
Using systems thinking to address the root causes of society's problems rather than simply treating the symptoms.

Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H., NCTMB

Frederick Zimmerman, Ph.D. is an economics professor at UCLA's School of Public Health. I believe that he is carrying forth research in the true Public Health tradition of seeking truth, no holds barred and the heck with the special interests. (I'm biased, here, because I have Masters of Public Health from UCLA.:-) Public Health emerged historically with a dual focus that combined scientific reductionism with systems thinking and pragmatism. Rather than assuming that science is always the answer, the traditions of Public Health include the wise observation and investigation of health and behavioral phenomenon, exemplified by the John Snow's discovery of the causes of an 1854 cholera epidemic in England.

To quote from a recent UCLA announcement of a webinar with Dr. Zimmerman, " His research studies economic influences on population health, with a particular focus on media use and child health and has caught the attention of the popular press, including NPR, the BBC, Good Morning America, the Today Show, The New York Times, and many other media outlets. The large increase in obesity in the past 30 years has often been explained in rational choice terms, for example, that a decline in food prices has engendered greater food consumption, or that the changing work environment has inhibited physical activity on the job. On closer examination, these explanations do not fit the facts. Dr. Zimmerman will discuss how an unprecedented expansion in the scope, power, and ubiquity of food marketing has vastly altered the culture of food and eating, and it is this cultural change that has led to our current obesity pandemic."

So, perhaps we do not need to blame the victims of obesity for their own plight! Of course, that has been the "American Way," but caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is not working to keep the public's health from disastrous consequences - just to increase profits for businesses exploiting our genetically pre-determined cravings for fat, sugar and salt - and others who then exploit our genetically pre-determined urges to look healthy and attractive - and media advertisers and ad agencies then rake in profits of their own. Looking at the growth of the processed food industry and its massive advertising (and lobbying) budgets over the past 50 years, the choice between profits and the public's health is a theme that has become emblematic of this nation's abdication of its responsibilities to future generations.

It is one thing to blame adult alcoholics or heroin addicts for their addictions, but quite another thing to blame 5-year olds for their obesity, asthma and diabetes. If one is seriously trying to reverse the pandemic of obesity in the US and most of the rest of the world, one must observe the systems that are feeding it. The fabrication and marketing of processed foods that are virtually toxic and addictive in the amounts of fat, salt and sugar they contain is likely a major factor in our growing obesity.

Do we do something about it? Not if we are loathe to restrict businesses' rights to create and market unhealthy foods that are irresistible! There currently seems to be a right for businesses to have their profit-creating activities presumed to be safe unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Is this the way things are supposed to work?


Laurie Hansen said...

Hello Earon!

Thank you for your insightful post! I am a concerned mom (and KU IL Blogger) and taking baby steps toward better health and food choices for my family. I was moved by Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and I included his TED talk on the IL Blog. -- One of the steps I took toward better eating was joining an organic food coop. My kids and husband are enjoying the fresh fruits and veggies and I am making an effort to pack "organic gourmet" lunches for the kids. The fresh green lettuce and tomatoes look so beautiful and appetizing! We are getting there!

Thanks Earon!

Kaplan Center for Health and Wellness said...

Hi Earon,

Great topic! The food industry certainly plays a huge part in the obesity epidemic we have in this country--yet it seems this is rarely discussed. What are your thoughts on Michelle Obama's "request" for the food industry to change their ways?


Kaplan Center for Health and Wellness said...

Laurie, that is a great, positive action you are taking with the organic co-op! I agree with you about Jamie Oliver's presentation on TED. I think that we need to take personal action to help our families (and to help educate our children that food actually comes from farms - not factories) at the same time that we press for changes in the larger system through which our food is rendered less nutritious.


Kaplan Center for Health and Wellness said...

Nancy, I think that Michelle Obama's "request" is important in starting a dialog. The American public, in my opinion, is bewitched by corporate profits and lobbyists and not inclined to require corporations to behave responsibly until it too late to avert disaster.

We have our work cut out for us if we wish to reform the food industry on the level of the reforms instigated by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" in 1906, which inspired President Theodore Roosevelt and many others to work to create the Food and Drug Administration.

Thanks for your comments!


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