Opinion: New kid on the block

POSTED: 05/20/14 9:42 PM

People have a never-ending ability to destroy themselves. They smoke, they drink and they eat too much. Result: lung cancer, liver disease, obesity. And how do we deal with all this? Cigarettes are freely available, alcohol idem ditto – and in St. Maarten all this stuff is relatively cheap too.

Tobacco kills. Tobacco drives people into hospital. Governments know this, but it is not practical to outlaw tobacco. That is the lesson the world has learned from the Prohibition in the United States. So instead, producers are obliged to print the most god awful pictures on the packaging of their products. A young woman walking behind an empty pram; a close up of a foot with a morgue tag on it; an impression of what nicotine does to lungs.

Does it help? Hell no. But it gives governments the feeling that they have done something, while they are still happily collecting the taxes on these products.

Alcohol – well, the stuff is cheap, and it is everywhere. Many countries have curtailed advertising for alcohol and tobacco. Does it help? Hell no, but at least it gives politicians the feeling that they have done something. In backrooms, they keep smoking their cigars – it is not cool to be seen smoking in public – and they keep drinking their expensive wines and whiskies.

Obesity is the new kid on the block. People eat unhealthy, they’re getting too fat – and in many cases obese. That burdens the healthcare system and the economy. Obese people are not as productive as citizens with a normal weight and they are sick more often.

So what do we do? We talk about obesity, how bad it all is, and we do nothing. Oh, wait, two lobby groups, Consumer International and the World Obesity Foundation have come up with an initiative. They want stricter rules for the food industry, akin to the rules that are already in place for the Big Tobacco. The organizations say that obesity is a bigger health risk than cigarettes.

Now they advise to put warnings or pictures on your bag of potato chips. Government should also implement more rules for food and beverages – especially for salt, fat and sugar content – improve hospital food (we’d like to add prison food to this list) and come up with stricter rules for advertising.

The argument in favor of this top down approach is in the numbers. The number of deaths due to obesity or overweight jumped from 2.6 million in 2005 to 3.4 million in 2010. A researcher for Consumer International told the BBC in Great Britain that he wants to prevent that governments intervene too late. We figure governments missed that boat already years ago.

Consumer International refers to the sixties. At that time Big Tobacco maintained that there was nothing wrong with cigarettes and the industry even claimed that they were good for people’s health. Now millions of people die from smoking-related illnesses every year.

The British Obesity Platform calls on governments to take collective action.

Are we missing something here? Yep, we do. There is something like personal responsibility. Just imagine that the food industry would have to follow the example of the tobacco industry. Products would start looking like portals to the cemetery, and consumers won’t give a damn. They will keep munching their potato chips and eating all those fatty products – just because they happen to like them. Consequences be damned.

That is exactly what is wrong with all these lofty initiatives. They call on governments to do something, knowing darn well that consumers won’t listen anyway. It is a waste of energy and a waste of money.

Is there an alternative? Absolutely, and more than one. The first step would be to make unhealthy food more expensive. (The argument against this could be that in such a scenario only rich people will become obese). The second step would be to confront people with the consequences of their behavior.

Punishing people is a bad idea, so one ought to reward people that stick to a healthy lifestyle. Define a healthy average weight and reward people who stay on or under that average with lower healthcare premiums and let premiums go up for those who maintain an above average weight.

This way people will feel the consequences of their lifestyle in their wallet. As we all know, money talks, but grizzly pictures on products that are freely available in supermarkets have no effect whatsoever.


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