Obesity the new tobacco?

This week the widely-cited peer-reviewed journal, Health Affairs, published a paper looking at the link between obesity and the costs to the U.S. health system. The paper, based on research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, suggests that obesity could cost the system close to $150 billion dollars in the coming years if not put in check. Obesity is a fascinating area of study for many reasons and one of them is that it elicits such visceral reactions from different groups. Like tobacco, there are sides that are considered to be ‘good’ (public health) and ‘bad’ (fast food industry) by some.

But unlike tobacco, which has a clear industry that produces its product behind it, obesity is not as clear cut. As NYU professor of public health and nutrition and well-known author Marion Nestle writes, there are other groups that are challenging the CDC data. In her recent blog post, Nestle points to groups like the American Council on Science and Health that have come out strongly against data linking obesity and health problems. Nestle raises the question about where their funding comes from. Just like tobacco has a lot of groups that it sponsors to lobby and support on behalf of policies that are friendly to it – including funding “science” to support claims.

I am not an obesity expert, but I do an increasingly large amount of my work within the food system and bring over a decade of experience in tobacco control. What I see between the two areas is looking a lot alike.

If these numbers are correct, it is most likely another sign that a major campaign is about to be declared on obsesity, just like it was with tobacco. If so (and there is lots to suggest that it is already underway), it will be interesting to see if we get the same patterns of action that we had in tobacco like:

1. Faux science groups funded by those that create the very products under scrutiny claiming that the current research is flawed;

2. On the other side, an ‘obesity’ industry that becomes empowered but also resistant to new perspectives;

3. Stigmatization of those that are obese;

4. Major systems change in the way products are regulated

These are just some of the possible options. But I think that there may be some interesting parallels to note as this moves forward.

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