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Eat Me

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By now, most folks are aware of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's intention to ban the sale of large sodas in New York City. Bloomberg's proposed ban -- which  must first be approved by the City Board of Health -- would prohibit NYC  restaurants, theaters, sports venues and street cart vendors from selling sweetened drinks in cups over sixteen ounces that contain more than fifty calories. Not surprisingly, Hizzonor's announcement drew hearty cheers from the health-conscious and hellacious catcalls from the "Don't Tread on Me" crowd as well as the folks at Coca-Cola and McDonalds who, in addition to selling billions of gallons of Coke and other heavily sugared drinks is, without question, the globe's leading purveyor of grossly unhealthy cuisine. 

                                              

  "New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase," Coca-Cola said in their official statement to the press.  It also noted that "Coca-Cola already puts calorie counts on the front of every bottle and can we sell."  Not to be outdone in indigence, McDonald's spokeswoman Heather Oldani huffed that "Public health issues cannot be effectively addressed through a narrowly focused and misguided ban.  This is a complex topic . . . one that requires a more collaborative and comprehensive approach."

   Putting calorie counts on the front of every bottle and can or on the overhead menu may make for good p.r.  What it doesn't do, however, is counter the mind-numbing amount of advertising that got billions of men, women and children into the mood for a Whopper, Fries and a Large Coke in the first place.  Its in the same league as those incredibly wordy unreadable disclaimers that run for a second or two on television commercials -- or are intoned by an announcer speaking at Mach Three.  A minute disclaimer may keep the advertiser on the side of the angels when it comes to Truth in Advertising; but truth to tell, when advertisers make the commercials so alluring -- and run them with such frequency -- nothing but the sales pitch hits home.  Among my favorites are those for -- ironically, in view of this essay's subject matter -- weight loss products.  The ad shows "before-and-after" photos of people who go from beached whale to body beautiful by simply taking a new, revolutionary, doctor-tested pill . . . no diet, no exercise, no lifestyle changes.  And what is more, said pills are free (just pay shipping and handling) and guaranteed to work (results may vary) . . .

   While Bloomberg's supporters sadly note that his proposed soft drink ban has enough exemptions and holes to drive a Mack truck through, his detractors angrily accuse him of seeking to further the so-called "Nanny State's" pernicious reach.  "How dare government tell people what we may or may not drink?"  they argue .  What's next? they ask :  "Forbidding French Fries?  Pizza?  Burritos? Bacon Sundaes?"

   Indeed, what is next?  Although it is quite possible that Bloomberg's ban will never see the light of day, he has already performed an imvaluable public service in directing a megawatt spotlight on one of modern America's most vexatious problems: obesity. Facts and statistics about obesity in America are simply staggering.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the past twenty years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States.  More than one-third (35.7%) and approximateley 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents age 2-19 are obese. (One is considered "Obese" when their Body Mass Index -- BMI -- is higher than 30, and "Overweight" when BMI is 25.0 -- 29.9) Anyone wishing to determine their BMI can go to a site provided by the CDC.  I just did mine and learned that my BMI is 21.1).

  Several years ago, the CDC created a program called "Healthy People 2010."  Its goal was "to lower obesity propensity to 15%" -- meaning no more than 15% of any state population with BMIs over 30. Where in 2000 there wasn't a single state with an "obesity propensity," today, there are 12 states above this mark.  In 2010, Colorado, at 21% had the lowest percentage of people with BMIs over 30, followed by the District of Columbia (22.2%), Nevada (22.4%) Utah (22.5%), and Hawaii (22.7%).  Conversely, Mississippi, at 34%, had the highest percentage of ob ese citizens, followed by West Virginia (32.5%), Alabama (32.2%), South Carolina (31.5%) and Kentucky (31.3%).  Florida, by the way, was right in the middle -- 26.6%.  According to the CDC, while  there is no significant relationship between obesity and education among men, among women there is a trend -- those with college degrees are less likely to be obese or overweight compared to less educated women.  The CDC also noted that in the years between 1988 and 1994, and again 2007-2008, the prevalence of obesity increased in adults at all income and education levels.

  Not only does being overweight or obese pose a serious health issue -- diabetes, heart disease, cancer -- it is a source of concern in both the areas of national economy and national security.  A recent study by the Society of Actuaries (SOA) looked at the increased economic costs of an overweight/obese America.  Their study came up with the following figures:

  • $127 billion: Total cost of excess medical care caused by overweight and obesity.
  • $49 billion: Economic loss of productivity caused by excess mortality.
  • $43 billion: Economic loss of productivity caused by disability of active workers.
  • $72 billion: Economic loss of productivity caused by totally disabled workers.

   SOA researchers found that when queried through an online survey, 83% said they would be willing to follow a healthy lifestyle, such as participating in a health and wellness program, if incentivized  through their health plan.  In all the sturm und drang over the Affordable Care Act few have noticed that it does cover obesity screening and counseling for both children and adults, and provides $16 million  to "Advance activities to improve nutrition and increase physical activity to promote healthy lifestyles and reduce obesity related conditions and costs." These activities are intended to be a part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative and help implement recommendations of the President's Childhood Obesity Task Force.

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   Overweight and obesity also presents a clear-and-present danger where National Security is concerned.  Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that "An army travels on its stomach."  Increasingly though, the military stomach is getting too big to drag.  In 2008, when 684  military personnel were discharged for transgressing "don't ask, don't tell," 4,555 were discharged for failing to meet military weight standards.  Even relaxing their standard to a BMI of 26 (the low end of "overweight"), more than 9 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 are too heavy to enlist.  And if, as many are currently suggesting, America were to reinstitute a universal military draft, we would hard pressed to fill the ranks with people who are physically fit and ready to serve.

   Those who argue that proposals such as Mayor Bloomberg's violate the inalienable right to eat ourselves into oblivion forget what government -- from municipal to state to federal -- has accomplished over the past half-century to bring down the percentage of those who smoke cigarettes.  In 1965, 42.4% of  the American public smoked.  By 1980, that figure had been reduced to 33.2%.  Today, less than 20% (19.3% to be precise) of the American public lights up.   This dramatic decrease occurred despite the protests of an industry which still spends $29 million a day, 365 days a year to promote its deadly product. By comparison, the fast food industry spends $11.5 million a day and Coca Cola alone spends $8 million a day, as compared to Microsoft and Apple, which spend, respectively, just $4.4 million and a paltry $1.9 million. 

   Long before Mayor Bloomberg's campaign to ban sugary drinks, there was an army of health conscious people trying to get Americans to live healthier lifestyles -- and not just by switching to no-calorie sodas to go along with their 840 calorie Baconaters.  Shortly before his inauguration in January 1961, John F. Kennedy published "The Soft American" in Sports Illustrated.  His article established the need for Americans to get in better shape; toward that end he created a "White House Committee on Health and Fitness," and influenced a lot of young Americans to go out on 50  mile hikes.  I remember how in the early '60s, the 8th and 9th grade at our junior high school demanded that the lone candy machine be replaced by one that sold fresh fruit.  It was so popular that it had to be restocked a couple of times a day.  Of course that was back in the day when McDonalds measured their burgers sold in the tens of thousands.  Then again, there weren't any fast food establishments between the neighborhoods where we resided and the school we attended.  Perhaps one day we can use municipal zoning authority to keep these  establishments from setting up shop within, say, two miles of any school . . .

   I for one applaud Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hope that even if his ban on sodas doesn't pass muster, the very proposal will spark a nation-wide debate about our national waistline, cholesterol and BMI.  

  This is something we should all truly sink our teeth into. 

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-2012 Kurt F. Stone

 

http://www.kurtfstone.typepad.com

Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
 

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