First Lady Obama Will Have Weightier Impact on Health Debates than Hubby

President Barack Obama’s efforts at reforming the U.S. approach to medical care won’t win many imitators in other countries. Indeed, he’s likely to be upstaged in global health debates by First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.

Lady Obama launched a Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign on February 9, and is already catching up with the UK’s naked chef, Jamie Oliver, as a leading celebrity spokesperson on the issue. In all likelihood, the way her campaign frames the obesity issue is likely to have more impact in defining the role of public policy in dealing with health rights far beyond the U.S.

She has already identified efforts to reduce childhood overweight and obesity as the key to genuine health reform that actually addresses disease prevention, not just insurance schemes to cover medical treatment of preventable disease. The U.S. already spends $150 billion a year treating such obesity-related disorders as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, she told a conference of U.S. governors and Canadian premiers on February 21. What will future costs look like when a third of people start off their lives as overweight and obese?  “We all know that we can’t solve our healthcare problems unless we solve our childhood obesity problems,” she said.

In the week leading up to the vote on President Obama’s healthcare reform bill, Lady Obama laid out her anti-obesity message to the biggest food processors in the world, gathered at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. She got a standing ovation from the industry heavies, and also won raves from prominent nutrition advocates Marion Nestle and Marian Burros. With such widespread support, it shouldn’t take long before Lady Obama’s framing of the obesity issue vies to become the international standard.  That would be a public health policy disaster in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Obama’s speech to the global giants of the food processing industry hit all the right notes with concerned parents by chiding processors and food marketers for the way they manipulated children’s taste buds and family eating patterns. Sweet, salty and fat-laden snacks with an average of 200 calories have become a daily norm, not a monthly treat, standard pop bottles have expanded from 13 to 20 ounces, and families now spend 22 per cent of their grocery budget on harmful treats, while only 12 per cent of their grocery money goes to fruits and vegetables, she said.

Lady Obama also told the industry she wants them to produce and market healthier foods for children and she wants to see less marketing for foods high in calories, sugar and fat.

As it happens, she burst heroically through an open door. The food industry is already primed to take a few slaps on the wrist and own up to the need for changes. Kraft has sworn to reduce the amount of salt in its foods by ten per cent over a decade, and Pepsi has pledged to take its pop drinks out of high schools. Processors have even organized themselves into a body called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. .

Cynics identify such moves as “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. Lady Obama’s approach adds to the credibility of such moves. The Audacity of Chutzpah meets the Audacity of Blind Hope.

Dealing with obesity doesn’t mean politicizing it, she stressed, identifying the elephant in the room that has many industry leaders in panic. “I also know that we can’t solve this problem by passing a bunch of laws in Washington,” she said. “I’ve talked to a lot of experts about this issue, and not a single one has said that the solution is for the federal government to tell people what to do.”

She is opposed to making obesity a divisive and therefore debatable issue. Finding common ground is “a no-brainer,” she said. What governments can do is bring people together from all groups – “governors, mayors, doctors, nurses, businesses, non-profits, educators, parents, all of us.” Not that nutritionists, public health officials, farmers, anti-poverty activists or children deserve to be listed as part of the all.

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 allow industry to legitimately tell people what to do.

“That’s like saying ‘let’s work with the drug dealers to launch a campaign against drugs,’” snorts my buddy Brian Cook, a Toronto expert in children’s marketing and obesity issues.

“The issue is not just what parents and children can do to eat less and exercize more,” he says. “ It’s what governments can do to eliminate an obesogenic environment” fostered when fast food companies exercize the same domination of public space as cigarette companies exercized only 25 years ago. Cook supports the U.S. based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood which argues for Quebec-style legislation that bans all marketing to children on the grounds that their minds shouldn’t be polluted with ads their minds haven’t grown to deal with rationally.

It might have seemed like Michelle going into the den of lions when she spoke to grocery manufacturers, but if she’d wanted to go to the place where government actually does tell people what to eat, she’d have gone down the street to the United States Department of Agriculture, dispenser of multi-billion dollar yearly giveaways that support cheap grains and oilseeds, the building blocks of cheap junk food.

Those farm subsidies that have led to the price of sugar, fats and refined grains going down in price by 24 per cent since 1985, while fruits and veggies went up 39 per cent, according to a paper released by the respected Institute for Agriculture and Trade and Policy in Minnesota.

Anyone campaign claiming obesity can be solved by individuals and industry, not government, promotes an argument that can only benefit the fat cats of the food industry.

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