Jail Time for Junk Food?

by Douglas Robb aka @healthhabits


An article in today’s Daily Beast (How Washington Dooms Millions of Americans to Premature Death by Nicholas Freudenberg) got my brain spinning about food, obesity, junk food, diabetes, the free market, corporate responsibility, politics, personal responsibility and how all this ‘stuff’ has come together to create an epidemic of lifestyle disease.

In his article, NF brings up a number of interesting facts:

  1. Chronic diseases cause 7 out of every 10 deaths in the United States
  2. 49% of Americans have one or more chronic diseases.
  3. In the United States, tobacco, alcohol and diet cause more than 1.2 million annual premature deaths from heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and other conditions.
  4. Chronic diseases account for $3 of every $4 spent on healthcare—about $1.5 trillion annually in the US of A.

So, how is it, that with all of this available data, the US spends less than 10% of total healthcare funding on health promotion / disease prevention?

  • Is it because public health campaigns don’t work?

Nope….while cases of diabetes have increased 176% in the last 30 years, it is estimated that 8 million ‘premature deaths’ have been prevented thanks to anti-smoking PSAs combined with increased taxes on tobacco products.

Public health campaigns can work…if they are well designed, well funded and receive government support.

So why isn’t that happening?

The simple answer is that big food corporations don’t want it to happen. They watched Big Tobacco get pummelled by public opinion AND public policy and are working hard to avoid the same fate.

By framing the food/disease debate as a matter of personal responsibility, not public policy, Big Food is shifting any & all responsibility for America’s lifestyle disease epidemic from their shoulders solely onto those of the consumer.

And while the consumer is ultimately responsible for the food they feed their family, this ‘free market’ argument conveniently ignores…

  • the millions being spent lobbying government to prevent anti-Junk Food legislation
  • the billions being spent marketing processed & junk foods to America’s adults & children.
  • the mis-truths designed to convince consumers that this…

….and this…

…and this…

… should be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

In his Daily Beast article, Nicholas Freudenberg goes on to question “what public policy approaches could make it harder for corporations to profit at the expense of public health?”
He argues that food corporations should be forced to disclose what they know about the health effects of their products to help the consumer make an informed purchase
He argues that we need a better balance between the constitutional protection of commercial speech and a corporation’s responsibility not to misrepresent the health benefits of their products.

But here’s where it gets interesting for me.

Freudenberg argues that the “success of the fast food, gun, pharmaceutical and other industries in getting Congress to limit the rights of injured consumers to file class action lawsuits are steps in the wrong direction.”

  • If Ford sells a car that results in the death of it’s customers…lawsuit.
  • If a public company lies to their shareholders…lawsuit.
  • If a company pollutes the surrounding groundwater…lawsuit.
  • If a company sells a product that they know to be potentially carcinogenic (hint hint — tobacco)lawsuit.
  • If an individual sells marijuana on the street…jail time.

What about companies that sell products which cause diabetes? Or cancer? Or heart disease? Or depression? Or autism? Or even something as minor as allergies, obesity, skin rashes, etc?

What about those companies?

What does it say about our democratic, free market based society that some of us make a LOT of money selling harmful products…and the harmed individuals have next to no legal recourse.

Doesn't sound very free…or democratic to me.