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Government Policy Won’t Fix Obesity

Recent proposals submitted in Senate committee hearings to tax non-diet sodas and sweetened beverages are nothing more than a smokescreen to generate revenue. Rather than impacting the nation's runaway obesity crisis, these so-called "fat taxes" serve only to fatten government coffers. The real solution lies in mobilizing the most vested party: the food industry.

Despite the positive spin surrounding the social benefits of such taxes, their effectiveness has been called into question. One landmark study involving researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin - Madison and Yale University has shown that taxing soft drinks, even at the level of cigarettes, “would not substantially combat the obesity epidemic.”

The taxation model’s main thrust is the presumption that certain products are inherently harmful regardless of the quantities consumed, much akin to cigarettes. This logic misses the big picture. The real culprits, no matter what the source, are calories.

Obesity is a supply problem: there are simply too many calories looking for too few mouths. Since the 1950s, the number of calories available for daily consumption per person has increased by a whopping 29%.

Who is best equipped to deal with abating this overabundance of calories?

Certainly not the policymakers. Government programs to reduce consumption and educate consumers about healthy eating have been woefully ineffective. Since nutritional labeling on packaged goods was introduced in the early 1990s, the rate of obesity has more than doubled from 14% to over one-third of the adult population. The same holds for the Food Pyramid Guidelines. Intended to help consumers better understand nutrition and daily serving sizes, this tool has only perpetuated consumer confusion regarding what to eat and how much.

What about consumers? Shouldn’t they be responsible for their health and well-being? Certainly. But repeated attempts to stick with diets and exercise regiments have proven futile. Our Culture of Convenience demands food that is quick to heat-and-eat. More importantly, we have demonstrated an inability to say “No!” to great tasting food at a great price.

That leaves the food corporations. But unleashing the full power of the food industry to reduce America’s dependence on high calorie foods and beverages demands a major paradigm shift. It’s time for them to go on a diet. That means recanting the siren song of “bigger is better” and committing to sell Americans less calories.

Rather than resist such a tectonic mindset shift, food marketers must recognize that this situation is presenting them with one of the biggest opportunities in decades. It’s just good business.

When food companies take better care of their customers by offering healthier, lower calorie versions, improved longevity means consumers come back to buy longer. Competitive advantage awaits those companies that lead their category in shifting to healthier fare. And, perhaps, most importantly, profit margins can be increased (witness the early success of 100-calorie snack packs).

The TRIM 10 plan is a way to induce industry to act in this manner. Rather than government imposed taxes, regulators would set a calorie reduction goal and timetable, then turn things over to the food industry to deliver, and reward them for doing so. This moves the tone from punishment to progress. The elements of the TRIM 10 program include:

  1. Trim calories. Food companies and restaurant chains must trim their calories sold by 10% by the end of the decade. This would pull out almost 400 calories per person per day out of the food supply with full compliance. Structuring this way avoids taxes or product discontinuances and permits companies the most flexibility to change their mix of products, packages and promotional support while maximizing their profits.

  2. Tag ads. Industry’s forte is advertising. It’s time to use this skill to the benefit of the consumer’s health. Incorporating portion control/eat responsibly messages into 25% of food, beverage and restaurant ads would yield $4 billion worth of healthier eating messages, a figure that dwarfs puny government health advertising budgets.

  3. Tax relief. To engage industry, government must provide tax incentives to companies that comply. Meet the calorie reduction goal, keep your tax deductions for advertising. Exceed the target and gain additional deductions. However, for those companies that continue to spew excess calories on the American public, they risk losing their prized allowable deductions.

Legislators and public health officials must rethink taxation as the only viable approach to solving America’s overweight and obesity epidemic. Everyone must have skin in the game. Empowering the food industry to step up and do the right thing while making its profits is the most effective solution. America’s waistlines depend on it.

Hank Cardello is the author of “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat.” He is a former executive with Coca-Cola and General Mills and now chairs the Global Obesity Business Forum sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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