Fake food now kills as many people as cigarettes, and it is time to apply the same solutions as we did to that problem. There is a tried and tested formula to crack this problem – education, regulation, taxation and stigmatisation. This article looks at all the things we could change as a society to deal with the issue. If we really want to solve the obesity problem we will need them all, but you can set out your plan in the survey a the end of the article.
There should be no debate about education – information is fundamental to the basic functioning of a market, without knowledge people cannot make intelligent choices. Yet at this most basic level we are failing. There are many things we could do differently:
Teach our kids: Many of our kids grow up not learning about how to recognise, cook and grow good food, and then we wonder why they make poor parents. Some schools have effective programmes that could be rolled out across the country (e.g. Energize in the Waikato).
Healthy eating campaigns – they aren’t hugely effective, but they don’t cost much either.
Simple, informative food labels – half of Kiwis are confused about how to eat healthily, and our food labels don’t help at all. We refuse to learn our lesson from the debacle that misleading information from the investment industry led to, and don’t require that food labels carry decent information to help people make their decisions.
Cooking & gardening skills – our health system has a great initiative (the Green Prescription) that helps people start exercising. Why not do the same to help people understand how to shop for nutritious food, start cooking and gardening? This would probably take more effort to get going in poorer communities where understanding is low and healthy options are more limited.
Regulation is a blunt instrument and so is tougher to justify, but there are some clear examples where our youngest and most vulnerable could benefit from our parliamentarians showing some backbone:
Ban junk food advertising to kids – We have agreed in our society that children are unable to make rational decisions when it comes to things like getting married, having sex, voting, smoking, drinking alcohol, leaving school and driving. We also know that what children eat is important for forming their bodies, brains and habits for the rest of their life. Yet from about the age of seven, we give them more and more freedom over what they eat, and it should come as no surprise that what they eat is generally food that is high in sugar and fat, cheap and heavily advertised. Should we treat children as rational consumers of food, and fair game for advertisers looking to secure a lifetime of addiction — sorry, ‘brand allegiance’?
Only provide healthy food in schools & hospitals – this Government reversed the school food guidelines as soon as they took office. We loathe drug pushers, yet we do nothing to control the amount of sugar fat and salt being peddled in or around our schools. And if hospitals are places of health, why do we sell stuff that kills people?
Regulate what is in our food – few countries have done this, but the threat of regulation itself is usually enough to get food companies working on reducing harmful ingredients like trans fat and salt in their foods.
Placement of junk food outlets – local communities have a say over the placement of alcohol outlets, but we can’t stop junk food outlets setting up around our schools or clustering in poor neighbourhoods. This could be changed if planners had to take health into consideration in their decisions.
Education and regulation are all well and good, but we only started winning the war on smoking when we started putting up the price of cigarettes. Tax also helps generate a war kitty to fight the obesity epidemic and pay for the surge of diabetes sufferers coming our way. This sort of tax is actually about individual responsibility. Someone has to pay the bill that is headed the way of our nanny state health system, it should be those causing the problem.
Tax on sugar sweetened soft drinks – these ‘liquid lollies’ are the worst example of fake food – they make us fat, rot our teeth and don’t stop our hunger pains one little bit. Many countries and states in America tax ‘em, we should do the same without delay.
Tax on all junk food – Think it is impossible? Mexico just did it. This should ideally be lined up with the labelling system so if you were buying an unhealthy food you would know that a tax had been lumped on top. We suggest a 20% tax to start with – depending on which products you applied it to this tax could raise about $1b.
Make healthy food cheaper – this revenue could be used to subsidise fruit and veges. One approach could be to offer an electronic card that is loaded with a $5 subsidy each week for each child in the country. This money could be used to buy fruit and veges (possibly trim milk and wholegrain bread also).
This is the hard part. Like smoking, we have to be careful not to target the addicts who have been sucked in by marketing. The same goes for the overweight who may well be the victims of their own genes and upbringing. Instead we have to work against the tide of marketing and make eating fake food uncool. The watershed in the cultural war against smoking was probably banning it in pubs sending smokers outside to satiate their addiction. This stripped smoking of the sheen it had when front and centre on the movie screen.
Right now, eating unhealthy food is the easy choice. That needs to be flipped on its head. We’ll need to change fundamental things from fundraisers to rewarding good behaviour in our kids. Sausage sizzles and selling chocolate bars for a school trip, even free treats in airline lounges will all one day be shown up for they are – cheap and nasty ways to feed an addiction.
Of course, such a plan will take time and political will to implement. However action is needed, otherwise we truly are facing a zombie apocalypse of diabetes sufferers hitting our hospitals over the next two decades. Yes baby boomers, just when you were planning on retiring and cashing in your planned hip and knee operations. About one in four people currently are at high risk of diabetes and the horrific side effects that come with it; imagine the toll that will take on our health system and workforce.