First tobacco, now the food police

By Richard Ingham

You sit down at a fast-food restaurant, and there on your tray is a large soda and two brightly-coloured packages containing your meal.

On the french fries is a friendly health message: "A balanced diet should include fresh fruit and vegetables."

The cola has something a bit more scientific: "Contains high-fructose corn syrup, a potential source of weight gain."

For your double cheeseburger, all subtlety is out. "Warning: A fatty diet is a silent killer," says the red sticker across the lid, adding for good measure, "Enjoy your meal!"

Sounds far-fetched? Only slightly.

For an epidemic of obesity is unfolding across the world, and policy-makers everywhere are finding themselves under pressure to get tough.

For decades, developed countries have offered their citizens advice on healthy eating. But as waistlines expand relentlessly and childhood obesity soars, more and more governments are being tempted to take the same path with the food business as they did with tobacco.

That road started with voluntary measures by the cigarette industry, was followed by regulations that limited advertising, and finally by laws that restricted points of sale and demanded stern health warnings on packaging.

"At first glance the consumption of food is very different from tobacco," say two nutrition experts, Ian Darnton-Hill of New York's Columbia University and Mickey Chopra of South Africa's University of the Western Cape, in the latest British Medical Journal.

"After all, food is not a deadly product and people need to eat every day to satisfy basic physiological requirements.

"Perhaps this is why the public-health response to over-nutrition has been largely based on the need for individuals to change their behaviour. But this approach is generally ineffective."

At the European Congress on Obesity, held in Prague in May, several speakers warned the food business would be among the casualties if obesity was ignored.

"If we don't do something soon we will pay a huge physical and financial cost from the medical complications of obesity," said Peter Kopelman, president of the European Association for the Study of Obesity.

He suggested the industry voluntarily introduce a simple system of colour-coded warnings on food packages to advise on obesity and other health problems.

Britain's House of Commons health committee last month slammed food advertisers and manufacturers, along with the government and National Health Service, for failing to tackle obesity.

It called for a voluntary withdrawal of TV advertising for junk food being pitched at children, and an end to media campaigns in which sports stars and other celebrities push crisps and chocolate.

Another idea being kicked around among lawmakers in Europe is for a "fat tax" - foods that exceed certain limits in terms of calories or fat content would face a levy, whose proceeds would go into research or a national anti-obesity agency.

Such thinking is anathema in the United States, where many legislators, while sensitive to the obesity crisis, are hostile to a crackdown.

In March, the House of Representatives approved the so-called Cheeseburger Bill (formally the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act), which would prevent consumers from suing restaurants if they grow obese from their food.

The main case against the food industry is that consumers, especially children, are being ever more frantically plied with processed products which are replete with fats and sweeteners. These products are crammed with calories - far more than are expended in the sedentary lifestyle of today. - Sapa-AFP

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