Weigh-In | The politics of combating obesity


In response to the dramatic increase of obesity in the population, there have been different efforts undertaken at the state and federal level to combat the health issue. Most prominently, First Lady Michelle Obama has chosen childhood obesity as her signature issue. Upon moving to Washington D.C., she immediately established the White House Kitchen Garden, bringing students from local schools to help plant, grow, harvest and cook vegetables while teaching them about the importance of fresh produce and nutrition. That was followed by a guest appearance on Sesame Street alongside vegetables costars. In February of this year, she launched Let’s Move, a campaign whose goal is to end the childhood obesity epidemic within one generation. Let’s Move is a comprehensive campaign working to educate parents about nutrition and diet, increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in “food deserts” or low-income and rural areas where there is a dearth of healthful food, and increase the number of farmer’s markets. Other parts of the initiative involve changing food product packaging to more prominently display nutritional information, making school lunches more healthy, encouraging schools to raise their physical activity requirements, and public and private sector partnerships to encourage parents, schools and communities to take charge of the issue.

However these are not the first efforts aimed at combating obesity. Many school districts have acted to ban soda, junk food and candy from school vending machines and cafeterias. California state legislators passed a law in 2003 that banned the sale of vending machine snacks and sodas in elementary schools. More recently they expanded the legislation to ban soda from being sold in high schools. In Connecticut, the General Assembly passed a similar law, however, the governor vetoed it saying it restricted parents’ ability to determine children’s diets.

Over the last year some state politicians as well as federal ones have advocated for a soda tax. Since soda is unhealthy and labeled as a prime contributor to obesity, the tax would increase the cost of soda and hopefully reduce consumption. It would also add money to government coffers in a time of widespread budget deficits. However, others contend that the government has no place telling people what they should or should not eat or drink. Additionally, some fear that a tax would disproportionately affect the poor. According to a study in the Journal of Urban Health, low-income consumers in New York City are more than twice as likely as other groups to drink soda. Lastly, soda is not the only unhealthy beverage: some juices contain more calories and sugar than soda yet would remain unaffected.

The notion of a soda tax has already been floated in Kansas and New York. In Kansas, soon after legislators discussed the possibility of the tax, beverage lobbyists were joined by bottling and distribution plant workers in effectively extinguishing the possibility of the tax, which would have increased the cost of a 12-ounce can of soda by 10 cents. In New York, the governor put forth a one-cent per ounce tax idea in 2009. It has recently come up again and is still in contention. In 2009 the American Beverage Association spent nearly $900,000 lobbying New York politicians, up from zero the previous year. At the federal level, the soda tax was discussed in February and then again in April as a possible additional source of revenue, but debate has not progressed.

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