food and beverages

Industry, IOM Again Tangle Over Obesity Policy

Obese-Guy-BThe Institute of Medicine today released a report concluding that taking far-reaching steps -- such as changing farming policies, zoning laws and possibly instituting a tax on sugary sodas – are necessary to tackle the obesity crisis in the U.S.

The food and beverage industry immediately issued responses arguing that IOM’s conclusions lack scientific validity and would serve only to reduce Americans’ freedom to choose what they eat.

IOM studied more than 800 obesity-prevention recommendations to identify strategies that could be employed together to significantly reduce obesity over the next 10 years. 

It focused on those it concluded will support five goals: integrating physical activity “every day in every way”; marketing “what matters for a healthy life”; making healthy foods and beverages available everywhere; activating employers and health care professionals; and strengthening schools as “the heart of health.”



The IOM report panel, comprising government, academic and private-sector members, stressed that no single action or policy is capable of significantly reducing the incidence of obesity. It also stressed that blaming individuals for obesity (a failure of personal responsibility) is erroneous because the current U.S. environment is “obesogenic.” Individuals’ personal choices are “severely limited” and “biased toward the unhealthy end of the continuum,” says the report.  

The report describes the current U.S. environment as “obesogenic.” It also argues that blaming obesity on a lack of personal willpower “has been used as the basis for resisting government efforts -- legislative and regulatory -- to address the problem."

Some of the report’s specific recommendations include providing developers with tax incentives to include sidewalks and walking trails in new developments; zoning restaurants; providing incentives for building grocery stores in “food deserts”; making schools the focus of anti-obesity efforts (including requiring an hour per day of physical activity in primary and secondary schools and banning sugar-sweetened drinks in favor of readily available water); taxing sugar-sweetened beverages as a “potential action”; and removing the government stricture that farms that participate in price-support programs for grain and other commodity crops cannot use that land to plant vegetables and fruit. (The last is meant to enable U.S. farmers to produce enough fresh produce for all Americans, according to the report – which does not recommend eliminating subsidies for farming corn used in high-fructose corn syrup.)

In response to the IOM report, the Center for Consumer Freedom, funded by industries including the food and restaurant industries, issued a statement contending that the report “misguidedly calls for the government and industry decision-makers to actively reduce the number of choices Americans have when they sit down to eat.”

CCF cites a recent study by researchers at Middle Tennessee State University and Lehigh University that concluded that environmental factors such as food prices and restaurant locations play a minuscule role in U.S. obesity rates – and that “a lack of personal responsibility is making Americans overweight.”

“The Institute of Medicine and other food nannies are no longer just calling for Americans to reduce their consumption of certain foods,” said J. Justin Wilson, CCF’s senior research analyst. “They’re flatly arguing against consumers having any choice in their snacks and meals. It is arrogant and absurd to suggest that Americans are too stupid to make their own food choices.”

CCF maintains that a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control, released on Monday, supports this contention, because it shows that the spiraling growth of obesity in the U.S. since in the past several decades has slowed somewhat. 

“What’s working for Americans is what always has, personal responsibility and consumer choice,” contends Wilson. “Restaurants and food companies, meanwhile, have recognized changing consumer tastes by offering more options and smaller-portioned meals and snacks… Increasing consumers’ options on menus and store shelves is the real key to curbing obesity,” Wilson continued, “not imposing one-size-fits-all policies that completely ignore the importance of personal responsibility.”

The new CDC-funded study projects that, if current patterns continue, the percentage of all Americans who are obese will rise from a current 34% to 42% by 2030, lower than some earlier studies’ 50%-plus projections. The new study also projects that those who are considered “severely” obese could rise from 5% to 11%.

The study concludes that, if obesity rates could be kept flat between now and 2030, instead of increasing at projected rates, the U.S. would save $550 billion in healthcare and other associated costs.

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