American Policies on Obesity- A Battle Plagued by Complexity

By: Buyi Wang

A system of policies is needed in accordance to the complexity surrounding obesity

America, like many other countries in the world, has been battling with obesity. Governments at all levels have created policies that promote healthy diet. For instance, on the city level, New York has created the Stellar’s Farmers’ Markets program, which opens farmers’ markets and gives cooking workshops in low-income neighborhoods. On the national level, the Food and Drug Administration has required major fast-food brand to provide calorie information on menus. Despite all the effort, obesity manages to rise. According to statistics released by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017, “almost 40 percent of American adults and nearly 20 percent of adolescents are obese — the highest rates ever recorded for the U.S”1.

It’s not a surprise that public policies have failed to decrease obesity. After all, people’s food preferences are complicated. A person’s food choice is a product of multiple factors, such as income, distance to the supermarket, education level and so on. No single factor can predict a person’s food choice. For long, low-level income is said to cause fast food consumption. The scarcity of fresh products is believed to be the origin of unhealthy-eating. Nevertheless, in real life, where situations are more complex, such assumptions don’t hold water. Research shows that poor people actually eat less fast-food than middle-class people, and only slightly more than their rich cohorts. Another research discovers that even when fresh goods become available, people tend to purchase the same unhealthy food as before.

Having failed to see this complexity, policy-makers have difficulties creating effective policies. One of the most famous cases is that of Los Angeles. In 2008, the city decided to ban stand-alone fast-food restaurants from opening in South LA. South LA has long been an area plagued by obesity. Statistics shows that in 2008, 63% of its residents were obese. The area is also called a food desert, where high-calorie and over-processed food dominates. “By the council’s estimate, there are nearly 1,000 fast-food restaurants in the 30 or so square miles of South Los Angeles covered by the regulations”2. To supporters’ dismay, in 2011, the obesity rate of south LA increased to 75%. Simply restricting the number of fast food restaurants turns out to have trivial effect. Along with the ban, policy makers planned to open new supermarkets in the area. They believed that supermarkets would improve people’s access to fresh products and thus decrease unhealthy-eating. However, just because there are now fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood doesn’t mean that people would buy them. If people are used to consuming unhealthy food such as sweets and sodas, then they would continue. As confirmed by a research, when poor people live in a more affluent neighborhood, where healthy options are more abundant, their food consumption behaviors are still typical to those of the poor. Providing healthy options are important, but other measures are required as well.

Another policy that has raised controversy is calorie labeling. As of May 5, 2017, the Food and Drug Administration required major fast food brands to post calorie information on the menu. The effect is limited. In Philadelphia, where such law has already existed since 2008, only 8 percent of surveyed customers are likely to eat more healthily. Researchers criticize that customers don’t have enough information to interpret those calorie numbers. Customers not only need to know that a big Mac has 540 calories, but also that 540 calories are ¼ of the 2000 daily calorie intake recommended by nutritionists. The nonchalance that fast-food consumers have towards health might also limit the effect of the policy. When going to a Mcdonald, customers might not necessarily be looking for something healthy. Instead, they might be looking for something cheap, fulfilling and convenient. As a result, even though they might have actually noticed the calorie information, they might not take it into consideration.

The previous two cases have delivered some important lessons. First, a single policy cannot decrease obesity. A system of approaches is required. Second, policies should provide motivation for healthy eating. Simply throwing a big supermarket into the neighborhood or putting some abstract numbers on the menu is passive. They are similar to putting a bowl of vegetables next to a plate of cake, and ask a person with a sweet tooth to choose. They provide minimal encouragement for people to change their eating habits.

One systematic approach that has produced promising effect is the combination of excise tax on unhealthy food and food education. There are many reasons why it would work in the US. First, even though price elasticity of demand for food is generally inelastic, certain unhealthy food such as soda is found to have a relatively large one. According to one research conducted by Yale scholars, estimated price elasticity of demand for soft drink is -0.79.  This suggests that“ a 10% tax on soft drinks could lead to an 8% to 10% reduction in purchases of these beverages”3. This effect may sound small, but remember that it would influence American people across all backgrounds. Even though the elasticity of other unhealthy food is still unknown, the fall of smoking achieved through cigarette tax suggests something promising. Like cigarette, fast food is not an necessary product. A small increase in the price might thus reduce consumption by a fair amount. Second, the tax motivates both producers and consumers to adopt changes. Once nutrition standards are integrated into the tax, producers would create healthier products in avoidance the tax. Consumers, seeing the rising price, might choose to consume less unhealthy food. Food education is also crucial in decreasing obesity. Consumers might indeed eat less unhealthy food in response to the tax, but they might still be stuck in an unhealthy diet, such as only eating eggs and whole-wheat bread. Therefore, citizens should still get education on healthy eating.

All in all, obesity is an issue cursed by the complexity of people’s food preferences. Instead of finding a single policy that tackles obesity, policy makers should strive to come up with a system of approach. Moreover, policies should be more active in encouraging people to eat healthily. Without incentives, people would continue their unhealthy-eating habits and obesity would continue troubling America.

Sources

  1. Gussone, F. (2017, 13 Oct). America’s obesity epidemic reaches record high, new report says. NCBCNews. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/america-s-obesity-epidemic-reaches-record-high-new-report-says-n810231
  2. Medina, J. (2011, 15 Jan). In south Los Angeles, new fast-food spots get a ‘No, Thanks’. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/us/16fastfood.html
  3. Andreyeva, T., Long, M., Brownell, K. (2010, 1Feb). The impact of food prices on consumption: a systematic review of research on the price elasticity of demand for food. American Journal of Public Health 100, no. 2. Page 216-222. Retrieved from https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/ref/10.2105/AJPH.2008.151415
  4. Cover picture. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/appetite-beef-big-bread-bun-1239200/