September 12, 2006
The obesity epidemic is taking a staggering toll on American lives.
Obesity now causes 400,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to the American Journal of Public Health. And a recent report by Trust for America's Health, a national health advocacy group, notes this toll is particularly high among low-income Americans.
Entitled "F as in Fat," the report found that obesity is leading to increases in type-2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
While there are a host of causes behind this epidemic, one of the leading factors is the profit-driven behavior of food manufacturers and sellers. Coca-Cola spent $2.2 billion pushing its syrupy beverages in 2004, according to the British medical journal, Lancet. Not far behind, Pepsi spent $1.7 billion. And McDonald's spent more than $700 million to push fast foods.
To shift blame away from itself, the food industry uses a public relations script that focuses on personal responsibility. It suggests that if people are overweight, it's their own fault. It claims the industry is only responding to consumer demand. It insists that any government action to abate its practices is an attack on freedom.
In spite of the toll of the obesity epidemic and irresponsibility of the food industry, our government has no strategic plan to take on this epidemic, according to "F as in Fat."
The Bush administration claims to be concerned about America's security, but it dithers while hundreds of thousands of Americans die of obesity-related illnesses each year.
Five years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General called for action on obesity. But the Department of Agriculture (USDA) worries that "large adjustments" would be needed in the agriculture and processed-food industries if people ate more healthily.
The USDA's indifference leaves people to try to lose weight through ineffective diet programs. Americans spend $35 billion annually on weight-loss products and services, but most diets have failed to result in long-term weight loss.
Given the Bush administration's inaction, private lawsuits could help make the food industry accountable for its role in the epidemic. But the White House fights even that option. "Food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person's consumption of ä food," the White House said in a statement supporting a 2004 House GOP bill that would have banned health-related suits against the food industry.
When 400,000 Americans are dying a year -- much of it correlated to industry greed -- government action should be required.
The Bush administration and Congress should finally heed the Surgeon General's call and make industries that are profiting from the epidemic change their ways. Thousands will continue to needlessly die, otherwise.
Ramón Castellblanch is assistant professor in the Health Education Department at San Francisco State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.