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Unhealthy Habit: Both Obamas Are Way Too Ready to Partner with Big Players who Keep U.S. Sick

Wayne Roberts
NOW Magazine
March 24, 2010

The devilish Republicans made him do it. Excuses are ready at hand for U.S. President Barack Obama’s health reform bill, which settled for half a baby step in the right direction rather than go down in glory for a law that treats health care like any other entrenched right to basic social security.

If Obama hadn’t caved on fundamentals, his defenders argue, the entire project would have been lost for another generation.

But if giving away basic human rights was indeed forced on the president against his will, what can we say about the initiatives of the First Lady and her own health campaign, one closely identified with the White House political machine?

Here there was no Tea Party pressure, no hysteria or “death panel’’ charges, and the First Lady still managed, as with her hubby’s medical insurance deal, to give away the ship through partnering with corporate interests.

In the week leading up to the vote on Obama’s health bill, Michelle Obama laid out her anti-?obesity message to the biggest food processors in the world, gathered at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

It was the climax of her Let’s Move campaign aimed at reducing childhood obesity, an effort that actually addresses disease prevention, not just insurance schemes. The U.S. already spends $150 billion a year treating obesity-related disorders like heart disease and diabetes, she said a few months back. And there’s no way medical care will ever be affordable when a third of youth are sitting ducks for expensive operations.

Unlike the president’s health deal, which will find few imitators elsewhere in the world, the framing of the obesity issue by the First Lady is likely to become the international standard.

That is sure to be a public health policy disaster in the U.S. and everywhere else.

Michelle Obama’s speech to the grocers hit all the right notes. She chided processors and food marketers for the way they manipulate children’s taste buds. Families now spend 22 per cent of their grocery budget on harmful treats and only 12 per cent on fruits and vegetables, she said. 

The First Lady went on to tell industry heavies to produce and market healthier foods for children. No sweat, actually. As it happens, she burst heroically through an open door. Kraft has already sworn to reduce the salt in its foods by 10 per cent, and Pepsi has pledged to take pop drinks out of high schools. Processors have even organized themselves into a body called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. 

I would call such moves “pre-emptive reforms” designed to let perpetrators of a problem get ahead of an issue and thereby prevent any campaign from getting out of hand, i.e., from getting political. Michelle Obama was clear about avoiding politicization. “We can’t solve this problem by passing a bunch of laws in Washington,” she said. “I’ve talked to experts, and not a single one has said that the solution is for the federal government to tell people what to do.” 

So instead of government telling people what to do, she’s promoting a coalition of Disney, Paramount and other media giants to produce marketing messages that presumably legitimately tell people what to do. 
My buddy Brian Cook, a local expert in kids’ marketing and obesity issues, tells me that’s like saying, “Let’s work with the tobacco industry to launch a campaign against tobacco.”

“The issue is not just what parents and children can do to eat less and exercise more,” he says. “It’s what governments can do to eliminate an obesogenic environment.” Cook supports the U.S.-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which argues for Quebec-style legislation that bans all marketing to children. The First Lady is not a patron of this cause.

It might have seemed like she was going into the lion’s den when she spoke to grocery manufacturers, but if she wanted to go to where government actually does tell people what to eat, she’d head down the street to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Here, many billions of dollars are dispensed yearly to support cheap grains and oilseeds, the building blocks of junk food. Those farm subsidies have allowed the price of sugar, fats and refined grains to go down by 24 per cent since 1985, while fruits and veggies went up 39 per cent, according to a paper by the Minnesota Institute for Agriculture and Trade and Policy.

Any campaign claiming that obesity can be solved by individuals and industry, not government, promotes a politics that can only benefit the fat cats of the food industry. This is suspiciously like what’s being excused in the president’s catering to the heavyweights of the for-profit medical industry.


 

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