TCS Daily

Thin Fizzy

By Joshua Livestro - January 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Like a modern-day Wyatt Earp, the European Commission has a reputation for legislating first, and talking later. A perfect example of that attitude is the Commission's approach to the issue of the so-called "obesity epidemic". Ever since completing their legislative anti-tobacco crusade, the Eurocrats at the department responsible for public health issues, DG Health and Consumer Protection (DG SANCO, in Brussels speak), have been looking around for another dragon to slay. The moment they hit upon the obesity issue, they pulled out their big guns and started shooting at anything that moved: fast-food outlets, school canteens, advertising agencies, and lately, the soft drinks industry. They issued a series of threats to ban, block or tax anything that contributed to the perceived problem. Pretty soon, Brussels will try to regulate what we can and cannot eat and drink, what we serve out children, even where we buy our meals.

If people at DG SANCO had bothered to take a closer look at the issue, they would have noted that there is, in fact, plenty of room to question the dubious logic and mathematics of the "fat epidemic" hypothesis. First of all, it's worth pointing out that Europeans are healthier now than they ever have been. Life expectancies for both men and women have risen dramatically in the past 50 years, even in the past few decades when this so-called epidemic was taking shape. In that same period, we also managed to eradicate most poverty-related and non-sexually transmitted infectious diseases. In other words: not only do we live longer, we also live healthier lives than ever before, and rising obesity levels do nothing to reverse this trend. If obesity is a problem, it's a luxury problem, certainly not the crisis that the anti-fat campaigners are talking about.

It's also worth noting that, contrary to the claims of the anti-fat lobby, there is no evidence to suggest that our eating habits have taken a turn for the worse. A recent study by the Dutch National Institute for Health and Environmental Studies (RIVM) shows that, in the last decade, general energy consumption through food and drink dropped by as much as 5 percent. On average we are using 5 percent less fatty acids, and a staggering 60 percent less trans-fatty acids. In other words: if there is an obesity epidemic, it can't be because we're consuming too much fat or fizz. Neither does it have anything to do with the presence of burger bars and drinks machines. A journalist for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad did the Morgan Spurlock test by spending an entire month having all his meals at the local McDonald's. At the end of the month, in which he had to try every item on the menu -- including all the soft drinks -- at least once, he had lost 12 pounds of bodyweight and two inches off his waistline. His blood pressure had also improved markedly. The success of this "fit through fat" diet shouldn't come as a complete surprise. After all, isn't that what the Atkins diet was all about?

The real reason the number of obesity cases has risen over the past few decades has nothing to do with our diet. The RIVM report quoted above observed that "the growth of obesity is caused by surplus consumption in relation to physical activity rates. It seems these physical activity rates must have declined even more markedly than the average fat consumption." In other words, if people are gaining weight, it is because they don't exercise as much as they should. There's nothing wrong with a burger or a soft drink, as long as you make sure you also get some fresh air and do plenty of exercise.

The fact that the Commission has chosen to ignore this evidence in its quest for a new legislative agenda puts the European food and drink industry in a particularly difficult position. They certainly wouldn't want to suffer the fate of the tobacco industry, which has been demonized and marginalized and which pretty soon might be legislated out of existence altogether. By taking unilateral steps to address the issue, they hope to show that any problem -- whether perceived or real -- is always best tackled through self-regulation. This explains why, just last week, the European soft drinks industry, through its branch organization UNESDA, offered to drop all advertising aimed at children under 12 and remove vending machines from primary schools (Drinks Business Review, 25th of January 2006).

I hope they succeed in stopping DG SANCO from taking completely unjustifiable legislative action. But in the longer term, there is no alternative to victory. They will need to educate the public on the real causes of obesity, such as lack of physical exercise, and will have to explain that no amount of regulation or taxation is going to tackle those causes. Because unless they win the argument and discredit the Commission's basis for coming up with further legislative initiatives, the Eurocrats will just keep coming back for more.

1 Comment

Recommends fruit juice and milk
In their publication the EPHA (European Public Health Alliance) recommends fruit juice and milk in place of sodas. They don't seem to realize that sodas and fruit juice contain about the same number of calories and are of about equally low nutritional value.
According to an epidemiological study, girls drinking milk have a higher risk to develop breast cancer.

Public health advocates on both sides of the ocean seem to engage in a frenzy which will soon lead to a system of total control over what we may eat and drink. Parental authority and judgement will soon be superseeded by governmental regulation.

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