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Published: Sun, 23 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

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Why the World Health Organization is Wrong on Soda Taxes

Sat, 15 Oct 2016 08:00:00 -0400

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report, "Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases," that suggests countries around the world should enact exorbitant taxes on soda—as high as 50 percent—"and other foods and beverages high in sugar, salt and fat" as a means of combating obesity and other diet-related diseases. The report also urges governments to adopt subsidies to make fruit and vegetables less expensive to purchase. The WHO report suggests these subsidies and taxes can "create incentives for behaviours associated with improved health outcomes and discourage the consumption of less healthy options." Similar, far smaller taxes are on the books in a growing number of local and international jurisdictions. Berkeley, Calif. was the first U.S. city to pass such a tax. Philadelphia adopted a soda tax earlier this year, though that tax, a cash grab on the part of the city—and one for which the city's been sued by beverage makers and distributors—was intended to add to the city's coffers rather than to combat obesity. San Francisco, Boulder, Colo., and several other cities around the U.S. will vote on local soda taxes next month. Globally, Mexico is one of several countries that has enacted a soda tax. The regulatory momentum, it seems, is on the side of soda taxes. Why, though? A Los Angeles Times piece this week on the new WHO report notes several popular and on-point critiques of soda taxes, including issues of "fairness (consumption taxes are a bigger burden for poor than rich people), freedom (the government shouldn't interfere with your personal choice of what to drink), trust (officials won't spend the tax revenue the way they say they will) and economics (small business will be harmed if taxes discourage sales)." Earlier this year, in an April bulletin, the WHO seemed far less certain of the impact of soda taxes on obesity, arguing that "pricing policies can influence purchasing patterns and have an impact on dietary behaviour," without claiming that such taxes could or would lessen obesity rates. "Time will tell whether the tax helps to reduce obesity prevalence as well," the WHO wrote at the time, of Mexico's tax. It could be a long time. One of Mexico's chief soda tax proponents, Dr. Juan Rivera Dommarco, director of the Mexican Research Centre in Nutrition at the National Institute of Public Health, admitted that soda taxes—even if they work—won't be impacting eating habits or health anytime soon. "The results in terms of a real reduction in obesity and increase in healthy consumption habits will not show immediately," he said. A WHO expert, Dr. Gojka Roglic, WHO medical officer, said it could take "five years or more" for any potential changes in obesity rates to appear. These less-than-impactful predictions about the impact of soda taxes on obesity occurred as data showed soda consumption in Mexico had fallen in the wake of the tax. But, as I wrote earlier this year, if soda consumption fell after Mexico's law took effect, it began to rise again shortly afterwards. That's not what a successful policy looks like. What's more, while the new WHO report calls for "economic tools that are justified by evidence," the report admits there's "[l]imited evidence"—or what the report charitably characterizes as an "evidence gap"—that "target[ing] sugar-sweetened beverages" will impact non-communicable disease outcomes. So just what did the WHO recommend, earlier this year, as an effective strategy to combat obesity? It wasn't soda taxes. "WHO recommends other price policies such as subsidies for, or lower taxation of, healthy food as well as initiatives to encourage people to eat a healthier diet, avoid tobacco and be more physically active," the body wrote in its April bulletin. The need to combat obesity using methods other than soda taxes echoes an independent 2014 report from McKinsey. That report, which notably used WHO methodologies, found that a tax on foods that are high in sugar or fat ranked near the bottom in terms of its cost-effectiveness [...]

Brickbat: How Can You Have Any Pudding?

Mon, 10 Oct 2016 04:00:00 -0400

(image) In the United Kingdom, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has directed restaurants to cut the portion sizes or reduce the sugar in desserts and other sweets. Their efforts will be tracked on a government website and those who don't comply with the government's demands will be publicly named.

Philadelphia's New Soda Tax Has Nothing to Do With Obesity

Fri, 17 Jun 2016 06:30:00 -0400

Yesterday Philadelphia became the first major city in the United States to impose a special tax on soft drinks, but as enacted it has nothing to do with reducing obesity, the usual rationale for such levies. Unlike Berkeley, where voters approved a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in 2014, Philadelphia will tax low-calorie and zero-calorie beverages at the same rate as regular soda. In fact, the tax of one-and-a-half cents per ounce could perversely encourage consumption of more calories, especially since it does not apply to juice products loaded with naturally occurring sugar. Mayor Jim Kenney, who as a councilman vigorously opposed a two-cent-per-ounce soda tax proposed by his predecessor, Michael Nutter, because of the burden it would impose on poor people, changed his mind this year, pitching an even more burdensome three-cent-per-ounce tax. But instead of presenting the highly regressive levy as a "public health" measure aimed at discouraging poor people from drinking the beverages they prefer, which is how Nutter had framed it, Kenney said the city should use the tax to pay for "universal preschool." That strategy worked, except the city council noticed that Kenney planned to divert some of the money to the general fund, so it cut his proposed rate in half and broadened the base, applying the tax to artificially sweetened as well as sugar-sweetened drinks. The upshot is that Diet Coke, with zero calories, will be taxed at the same rate as regular Coca-Cola, which has 12 calories per ounce, while orange juice, which has just as many calories per ounce, and grape juice, which has 21, will escape the tax altogether. Needless to say, this is not the way an obesity-fighting social engineer would have designed the tax, which is now simply a way for the city to raise money on the backs of poor and working-class residents. The money will be used to "help pad the City's General Fund" as well as "fund quality pre-K expansion, community schools, [and] reinvestment in parks and recreation centers."  City Council President Darrell Clarke argues that the revised tax is less regressive than the one Kenney sought. "It is the view of many members of Council that a General Fund problem and citywide initiatives should not be resolved by a proposal that affects mostly low-income people with few options," he says, alluding to the fact that sugar-sweetened drinks are disproportionately popular among poor people. By taxing diet soda as well, the city council hopes to impose more of the burden on middle-class and wealthy residents. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell says the enacted version of the tax will be "more widely spread among consumers at both ends of the income spectrum." This increase in perceived fairness, of course, comes at the cost of obliterating the rationale for taxing these particular products. What was once a supposedly noble effort to save poor people from their own bad habits has become nothing more than a money grab. In a way, that's encouraging, because Philadelphians clearly rebelled at the notion that taxes should be used to manipulate people's dietary choices, especially when poor people of color are the main targets. The condescending paternalism of Nutter's tax proposal turned people off so much that he could not get it approved. Superficial similarities aside, it turns out that what passes for high-minded resistance to "Big Soda" in Berkeley looks a lot more like arrogant meddling in Philadelphia.[...]

Five Years and $500 Million Later, USDA Admits That 'Food Deserts' Don't Matter

Mon, 13 Jun 2016 14:06:00 -0400

For several years, so-called "food deserts"—low-income neighborhoods devoid of nutritious food options—were an oft-cited culprit for America's high obesity levels. Everyone from state senators to Michelle Obama had ideas about how to fix the issue, from launching new farmer's markets in these neighborhoods to state grant programs designed to entice more fruit-and-veggie offerings to bans on new fast-food restaurants opening in these areas. The kicker was a multi-million dollar federal initiative, spearheaded by the First Lady, to promote farmer's markets and attract more grocery-store chains to food-desert neighborhoods.  "Since 2011, the Federal Government has spent almost $500 million to improve food store access in neighborhoods lacking large, well-stocked grocery stores," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "States and local governments have also launched programs to attract supermarkets or improve existing stores in underserved areas. For example, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative has provided $30 million of public funds (matched with $117 million of private investment) to help address limited store access in underserved urban and rural areas throughout Pennsylvania."  The theory was simple: poor people simply lacked easy access to healthy food options. If you put fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in front of them, they would soon be singing the praises of Michael Pollan, too. And voila: no more obesity epidemic in these neighborhoods.  But of course things didn't work out that way. As many business owners in these neighborhoods and other food-desert skeptics have pointed out, the problem wasn't that they simply hadn't thought to offer more wholesome items. The problem was that these items just didn't sell. You can lead human beings to Whole Foods, but you can't make them buy organic kale there. The USDA just admitted as much, with a new report on food deserts published in its magazine, Amber Waves. Highlights from the article note that proximity to supermarkets "has a limited impact on food choices" and "household and neighborhood resources, education, and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice than store proximity."   While limited early research "found a positive correlation between access to a supermarket (or other stores selling a wide variety of healthful food) and diet quality," these studies generally only measured food purchases for a short time period and often failed to "consider the fact that most households have access to a vehicle and are able to travel beyond the local food environment to shop for groceries." More recent and robust data "show that the effect of food store access on dietary quality may be limited."  Using data from several national food studies, the USDA determined that both low- and higher-income households tend to shop at supermarkets. Overall, 90 percent of households in a 2012-2013 study shopped for groceries at "a supermarket or supercenter." The figure was nearly identical for households that participate in USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—what used to be known as food stamps—or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and for households deemed as "food-insecure."  Both low and higher-income households also tend to travel to shop, often bypassing the nearest market when getting groceries. "This behavior was consistent across transportations modes; even those who walk, bike, or take public transit traveled, on average, farther than the distance to the nearest supermarket to do their primary food shopping," the USDA states. This suggests "that most U.S. households are not limited by the food stores in their own neighborhoods."  In low-income neighborhoods defined as food deserts, "limited food store access showed a modest negative effect on the nutritional quality of consumers' diets," with consumers in these neighborhoods purchasing 4.3 percent[...]

Philadelphia's Soda Tax Is About Raising Revenue, Not Public Health

Thu, 09 Jun 2016 12:55:00 -0400

New York Times health reporter Margot Sanger-Katz, who has cheer-leaded for increased taxes on soda for some time, published an article yesterday in praise of Philadelphia's "novel strategy" to promote its proposed (and likely to pass) measure increasing the price of sweetened drinks by one-and-a-half cents per ounce. The game-changing strategy to sell a regressive tax that will disproportionately hit the pockets of the poor, as well as grant even more power to the government to regulate the personal choices of private citizens? Framing it as a revenue source, rather than as a do-gooder health measure.  While it is true that there is an obesity crisis in this country and high-calorie and sugary drinks certainly do play their part in expanding American waistlines (though that part is frequently overstated), like so many Nanny State initiatives, Philadelphia's proposed tax is confusingly inconsistent right out of the gate.  Sanger-Katz writes that to assuage the guilt of some members of the City Council that their tax will hurt lower income residents — because "Poor people tend to drink more sugary drinks than higher earners" — the measure also taxes sugar-free diet sodas (which are also frequently calorie-free), which "was an effort to spread the tax burden up the income scale." The measure also exempts juice drinks, which naturally contain sugar, "as long as they have 50 percent juice, even if they also have added sugar." So essentially, the tax is based on the political preferences of the council members, not science. In April, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's proposed soda tax became a bone of contention in the Democratic presidential primary race, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) blasted his rival Hillary Clinton over her support of the measure. Sanders called it a "regressive tax" which violated Clinton's pledge to "not raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000." Other traditionally Democratic interests are also opposed to the tax, including the Teamsters union, whose International Vice President Bill Hamilton said at a rally in Philadelphia yesterday, "The issue has never been about health and we will all end up paying for this tax with the job losses that will occur if the mayor's soda tax is passed." It should also be noted that Sanger-Katz mentioned Mexico's national soda tax in her article yesterday, crediting the tax with causing a "substantial" drop in the "consumption of sugary drinks" for the first year of its existence. What Sanger-Katz neglects to mention is that Mexican soda sales rebounded a year later. How could this be? In an article last month, Reason contributor Baylen Linnekin explains: Soda tax supporters appear flummoxed, but undaunted. Their argument: it was hot. Really. Since 2015 was warmer than 2014, tax supporters argue, that can help explain the increase in soda consumption in Mexico. A few months earlier, Linnekin noted that one of the prominent studies touting the success of Mexico's soda tax, which was published in the British Medical Journal, "was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies—which also provided $10 million to push Mexico to adopt the soda tax in the first place—and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports soda taxes. And yes, Bloomberg Philanthropies is former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's primary charity organization, whose stated mission is to "[create] lasting change" where "the greatest good can be achieved." As mayor, Bloomberg was known for insinuating his personal health and diet preferences into policy, and his Nanny Statism did not cease when it came to charity. For example, he banned private food donations to homeless shelters because their salt content could not be verified. "The greatest good" apparently means less food for the hungry, just in case.  But like Philadephia's soda tax, the appearance of "the greatest good" is more important to elected officials than demonstrable results. But unlike Bloomberg's initiative[...]

Why the FDA's Updated Nutrition Facts Label Is a Stinker

Sat, 04 Jun 2016 07:45:00 -0400

Last month, competitive eater Matt Stonie, who won the most recent Nathan's hot dog eating title by downing 62 hot dogs, sat down with a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Over the next seventeen minutes, Stonie ate the contents of the bowl, which held two entire boxes of the cereal, along with a gallon of milk. The 7,700-calorie meal contained more than one pound of sugar. My first thought while watching Stonie eat the equivalent of 22 servings of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, naturally, was to wonder what, if anything, Stonie thinks of the FDA's newly updated Nutrition Facts label. What's his take on the label's larger, bolder typeface? What about the new footnote about the FDA's recommended 2,000-calorie diet? Did he consider it before he ate almost 8,000 calories of cereal and milk in one sitting? Did he consider whether his consumption patterns mesh with the new label, on which, "[b]y law, serving sizes must be based on the portion consumers actually eat." Did he ponder whether the sugar he ate was sugar or added sugar. I'm guessing Stonie, like many Americans, didn't read or base his decision on the Nutrition Facts label at all. The looming changes to the Nutrition Facts label include changing the typeface of the terms "calories," "servings," and "servings per container;" updating serving size requirements; and mandating food makers declare the amount of "added sugars" in a food product. By my count, there are 30 separate numbers on the updated Nutrition Facts label. That's actually an improvement, from down from 39 numbers on the existing label. Larger food makers have two years to comply with the rules, while ones making less than $10 million each year have three years. As President George H.W. Bush declared in signing the law that gave rise to the now-ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label in 1990, the purpose of the label is "to assist consumers in selecting a healthful diet." In announcing the latest changes, last week, the FDA gave the Nutrition Facts label a far broader and more generalized mission: to "make it easier for consumers to make informed choices about what they're eating." Have consumers been uninformed or misinformed by the existing label? The most common argument in favor of an "added sugar" label is tautological: it claims that the current Nutrition Facts label hides added sugar. "The final label requires Added Sugars to be declared to help consumers know how much sugar is added to the product," the White House reveals. Well, yes, of course it does, just like the existing requirement to declare total sugars helps consumers know how much sugar is in the product. Actor Chuck Norris agrees with the First Lady. "Current labels make it difficult—if not impossible—to measure the precise amount of sugars that are added to products," wrote Norris in a column this week applauding the new FDA rules. Vogue also suggests the new label makes it "easier to be aware of the total grams of sugar in a food." What's not to love? Lots, in fact. The new label does little well, and several things badly—including that it is misleading. These concerns aren't new, either. In a 2014 column, I blasted the FDA's overreaching and foolhardy attack on added ingredients, including not just sugar but also trans fats, salt, and caffeine, referring to them collectively as "total and utter nonsense." As I wrote noted in that column, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars (like those that occur naturally in fruit) are exactly the same substance. For example, take three hypothetical foods: a glass of orange juice, a can of soda, and a sugar-glazed, fruit-filled pastry. They may have the exact same amount of total sugar. The fact the juice gets its sugar from oranges, the soda its from added cane sugar, and the pastry both from the fruit and from added sugar in the glazing tells us nothing whatsoever that pertains to nutrition. The origins of the sugar—be they from nature (as all sugars b[...]

Judge Won't Halt San Francisco’s Forced Nanny State Soda Warnings

Wed, 18 May 2016 13:45:00 -0400

(image) Everybody knows that eating too much sugar (and flopping around on the couch all the time instead of exercising) makes you fat, right? This is not a secret. And soda and drink manufacturers have responded to our increased understanding of the relationship between carbs and obesity by offering sugar-free versions of many of their drinks.

Not enough for San Francisco. But nothing is enough for the nannies of San Francisco. They passed a law last summer that requires all public sign-based advertising for sodas and sugary drinks to contain the following text taking up 20 percent of the space of the advertisement: "WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco."

The beverage industry, along with trade associations representing retailers and outdoor advertising sign owners, challenged San Francisco in court. Not only is it compelled speech, they argued, it also obviously singles out only one possible contributor to obesity. Other unhealthy foods that have high amounts of calories (or even sugar) are not targeted for warnings.

But a federal judge has rejected a request at an injunction for the new law, determining that the mandated warning falls under a "legitimate action to protect public safety." Opponents will likely continue to fight it.

Consider for a moment what both the opponents and the judge, Edward Chen of the Northern District of California, are suggesting when their arguments are put together in tandem. Chen says it's true that sugary drinks can contribute to obesity, therefore San Francisco has a public health interest in requiring citizens to be warned. The soda representatives point out that there are a whole lot of other consumer products that have the same impact. We can see where this is going: This logic suggests that any food with lots of carbs or calories should have some sort of warning to consumers.

Down this path lies the madness of California's Proposition 65. Prop. 65, a statewide law, requires informing consumers (through signs) of the presence of possible toxins or carcinogens based on a list of government-controlled ingredients. The result has not helped protect consumers from exposure to cancer. Rather, the result is that there are Prop. 65 warning signs in every single business in the state of California, and for any that don't have them, there are lawyers looking to pounce. Prop. 65 instead tells Californians that toxins and carcinogens are everywhere, and death hovers over their shoulders as though they're all tertiary characters on Game of Thrones. It accomplishes utterly nothing to improve public health or safety. It's a lawsuit generator.

It's easy to predict something similar coming out of San Francisco: This obsessive need to meddle with the lives of others will lead to so many warnings on everything that people will have to simply ignore them entirely or else huddle in the corners of their homes out of fear. You better believe some lawyer interests are watching what's going on with this law and considering a ballot initiative to create a new Prop. 65 for sugar or fat content.

A Soda Tax As Found Money

Wed, 27 Apr 2016 00:01:00 -0400

When Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders argued about soda taxes last week, neither of them mentioned obesity. That striking omission reflects a shift in tactics by advocates of a special levy on sugar-sweetened drinks, who have started emphasizing the good that can be done with the resulting revenue instead of the evil that can be prevented by encouraging people to consume fewer calories. During a visit to Philadelphia last Wednesday, Clinton said she was "very supportive" of Mayor Jim Kenney's plan to pay for public preschool with a three-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. "We need universal preschool," she said, and "that's a way to do it." Sanders, Clinton's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, criticized her for supporting a tax that hits the poor especially hard. Sanders is right that a soda tax is highly regressive. Poor people are more likely than rich people to drink regular soda, and even if that weren't true the money they spend on soda (including any applicable taxes) would represent a bigger share of their income. ShopRite in Philadelphia is currently selling three 12-packs of 12-ounce Coca-Cola cans for $12. Kenney's levy, if passed through to consumers, would more than double that price—obviously a bigger burden for poor and middle-class shoppers than it is for the wealthy. Mayor Kenney, who as a city councilman led the fight against a two-cent-per-ounce soda tax proposed by his predecessor, Michael Nutter, alluded to the regressive nature of the levy he now supports in his budget address last month. "The line that really got me four years ago was the claim that this tax would hurt low-income, minority communities," he said. "But the truth is that soda companies are the ones actually targeting their advertising at low-income, minority communities." Kenney seemed to be implying that poor people of color buy soda only because they blindly do what billboards tell them to do, meaning the city would be doing them a favor by using taxes to discourage those purchases. Yet he also suggested that the new tax would come from the "incredible profit margins" of "large soda companies and wealthy distributors" rather than the pockets of poor people. Last week he called it a "corporate tax," declaring that "it is immoral and completely hypocritical for these vested corporate interests to pass this tax on to the very people they have profited from for decades." Kenney seems to have forgotten that the whole rationale for taxing soda is to discourage consumption of an unhealthy product by raising its price. When researchers try to figure out whether the soda taxes imposed by Mexico or Berkeley are working as intended, the first thing they look for is higher soda prices. If the taxes are not passed on to consumers, these levies cannot possibly do what they're supposed to do. Even if prices of sugary beverages go up, and even if consumers respond by drinking less of them, that change does not necessarily lead to a reduction in total caloric intake, let alone one big enough to have a noticeable impact on obesity. By eschewing the usual paternalistic justification for soda taxes, Kenney avoids such sticky questions as well as the resentment that comes from trying to steer people's dietary choices. Kenney's strategy is logically suspect, since his claim that his tax won't affect prices makes you wonder why he decided to tax these products in particular. Yet playing down the "public health" rationale for soda taxes seems to be working. In 2010 The Philadelphia Inquirer opposed Nutter's "hefty tax on sugary drinks," saying it was "regressive" and "will not have the desired impact" on obesity. But the paper's editorial board likes Kenney's even heftier tax on sugary drinks because Kenney has "refrained from overselling the uncertain public-health benefits." When The New York Times asked Kenney about the public health b[...]

Bernie Sanders Calls Out Hillary Clinton for Supporting Soda Taxes

Fri, 22 Apr 2016 12:05:00 -0400

(image) Democratic Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is proposing a soda tax, a regressive three-cents-per-ounce fee on sugary drinks. Given its flat nature, such a tax would obviously impact the poor more that the middle class and certainly the rich. In the nanny state world of progressive health management, this is actually part of the intent of these taxes. It is a not-very-subtle nudge to try to steer the poor away from consumer goods that the municipal government management class has decided is bad for their health. See also: cigarette taxes.

Kenney wants to use the money the city gets from the tax to help fund preschool programs for Philadelphia. A government program for the children? Sign Hillary Clinton up immediately! She declared her support for the soda tax this week as a way to achieve this end.

Bernie Sanders, for at least once in his life, knows a tax for what it is and that this soda tax is going to obviously be passed down to consumers (why he doesn't realize his protectionist trade policies will result in the same harmful outcome is another question). Yesterday Sanders blasted Clinton for supporting a tax on the poor. Via the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"Frankly, I am very surprised that Secretary Clinton would support this regressive tax after pledging not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000. This proposal clearly violates her pledge. A tax on soda and juice drinks would disproportionately increase taxes on low-income families in Philadelphia."

Kenney's response to Sanders' critique of soda taxes has been very much in the "I am shocked—shocked!—to find gambling in this establishment" vein. This wasn't a tax on poor people, nosireebob! It was a tax on rich corporations. They were supposed to just give us more money and accept lower profit margins!

"I'm disappointed Sen. Sanders would ignore the interests of thousands of low-income —predominately minority children—and side with greedy beverage corporations who have spent millions in advertising for decades to target low income minority communities," Kenney said. …

"It is immoral and completely hypocritical for these vested corporate interests to pass this tax on to the very people they have profited from for decades," Kenney said in a statement.

Does anybody actually buy this nonsense? Again, I bring up cigarette taxes, and sin taxes in general. They are deliberately put into place to try to push citizens away from spending their limited income on things that government functionaries have deemed harmful. The point of soda taxes is for manufacturers to pass along the costs to consumers and consumers to drink less of the sugary drinks and thereby have fewer health problems. Nanny-minded researchers are even studying the effects to see if they actually reduce consumption and improve public health.

I'm not sure what's worse about this sorry response from Kenney: His incredibly phony disbelief that this tax would largely be paid for by poor and middle class citizens, or the way he completely erased the agency of poor citizens and treated them as though their consumption choices are due to mindless responses to corporate advertising.

Runaway Farm Subsidies and Diet Guideline Fights: Federal Food Policy Is a Mess

Sat, 16 Apr 2016 08:00:00 -0400

Recently, a pair of controversial federal food issues has made the news. The unpredicted increase in USDA farm subsidies and continuing fallout from the new dietary guidelines have captured headlines. They're worth focusing on together, as they represent some varied and truly awful federal food law and policy. Earlier this week, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-Tx.) blasted critics of farm subsidies, claiming we live in a "fantasyland" where such subsidies aren't needed. Conaway's remarks come as news broke this week that Congress has woefully underestimated the cost of farm subsidies. The latest figures show taxpayers are on the hook for $13.9 billion this year, according to reports. A separate estimate shows congressional predictions fell more than a billion dollars short of actual predicted payment figures. When the most recent Farm Bill passed, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), then-chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, touted the law as "an opportunity to cut spending." What's happened since? Spending has only risen. Last year, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group predicted subsidies could reach $30 billion by 2018. I'm no economist, but doesn't encouraging farmers to plant as much corn and soy as they can help depress prices, which in turn triggers the very conditions (depressed priced, supply gluts) under which taxpayers are then put on the hook to pay for crop insurance subsidies? It's facts and factors like these that make Rep. Conaway's "fantasyland" comments appear beyond the pale. If we are indeed living in such a fantasyland, then it's a fantasyland designed by Rep. Conaway, Sen. Stabenow, and their fellow lawmakers in Congress. There's nothing inherently wrong with crop insurance. But taxpayers shouldn't have to pay to insure farmers against risk any more than they should be on the hook for subsidizing NASCAR drivers' auto insurance. "If crop insurance is an important element of farming," I wrote in 2012, "then let farmers buy such insurance on the open market—without taxpayer support—and, if need be, pass the costs on to consumers." While farm subsidies stink, consumers and taxpayers are treated no better by the federal government's malleable and controversial dietary guidelines. I interviewed journalist Nina Teicholz, a thoughtful and leading critic of the guidelines, last year. Teicholz, author of the bestseller The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, was invited to speak at a national food policy conference in Washington earlier this month. That was, until the conference's sponsor, the Consumer Federation of America, disinvited her. Asked to comment on its snub of Teicholz, a CFA spokesman told Politico curtly that "it didn't work out." Teicholz, who would have been the lone dissenting voice on the panel over the issue of saturated fat, was forced to book space at the National Press Club to deliver the talk she would have given at the CFA event. While the CFA is a private group and should be free to invite or disinvite whomever it wants for its panels, Teicholz told Politico she was disinvited after other panelists said they wouldn't sit on the panel with her. Those other panelists included a USDA official and a member of the congressionally mandated Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. It's one thing for the CFA to stifle dissent. It's quite another for it to apparently do so at the behest of those in government who help set federal nutrition policy. "To my mind, this is an effort to exclude uncomfortable realities, where you simply don't allow alternative viewpoints to be part of the conversation," Teicholz said. Needlessly using taxpayer money to pay farmers. Attacking critics of the policy as living in some sort of "fantasyland." Helping to stifle dissenting voices in the debate over fe[...]

Don't Blame Food Companies for What You Feed Your Kids

Sat, 02 Apr 2016 08:00:00 -0400

A study of infant diets in one British city has revealed some uncomfortable truths about what many parents feed their children. The study, by lead author Pinki Sahota of Leeds Beckett University and several colleagues, tracked the diets of more than 1,250 babies in the city of Bradford, England. The study was published online last year in Public Health Nutrition but appears to have made it to print only earlier this year. It was intended to look at "the dietary intake of key indicator foods at age 12 and 18 months and to identify any differences between White British and Pakistani populations." What the authors found disturbed them. "Some mums were giving children chips, crisps and sugary drinks at five months old," said the study's lead author, Sahota, in comments this week to the Daily Mirror. "The fact children are having this kind of food at such an early age is concerning enough. But parents are establishing bad eating habits for life." She's right. Parents are to blame here. But they're not alone. The parents of those parents, too, who've failed to teach their own children that feeding French fries and soda to an infant is no way to raise a child, deserve some share of the blame. Lawmakers also shoulder some responsibility. As Grub Street notes, the UK government has actually encouraged parents to feed candy bars and other junk food to finicky babies. And, to be clear, the study authors bluntly conclude many dietary failures arise in large part from a lack of education. "Low-educated younger mothers tended to be the worst," Sahota says. "Older, more educated parents knew the value of fruit and veg." While I find it slightly distasteful to refer to poorly educated young mothers as "the worst," and am uncomfortable with the study's "White British" and "Pakistani" classifications (why not, for example, "Pakistani British"?), things start to go off the rails for other reasons. Specifically, the study's lead author walks things in that direction when she points a finger at those who make and market food. "[Parents] need to be supported by the food industry," Sahota told the Mirror. "They could reformulate some of their high-fat and high-sugar products." Too often, as I've noted time and again, that tired old trope is the public-health community's answer to everything. If Sahota were talking about a wholly voluntary change—could instead of must—then I might be on board. But the fact she's recently come out in favor of a host of severe food regulations makes me think otherwise. For example, she appears to support restrictions on marketing food to children. That's both a non-sequitur and nonstarter. No amount of television watching by an infant is responsible for the fact they're consuming French fries instead of breast milk or pureed bananas and apricots. Sahota has also cheered on a new British government proposal to tax sugar-sweetened beverages, a nonsensical law of the sort I've opposed time and again. The "they could reformulate" argument travels along these same lines. After all, forcing food makers to reformulate their products is one stated goal of those who support punitive food taxes. Together, these factors increase the likelihood this is this just another study that may contain some important facts—and the potential to use those facts to argue chiefly for better education of parents and children—but which will instead be used to vilify food makers and justify intrusive and ineffective regulations. Asking why parents feed their kids poorly is an important question that researchers should continue attempting to answer. Designing interventions to help fix the problem is a worthy aim. But demonizing and punishing food makers won't get us closer to that goal.[...]

Brickbat: Sugar, Sugar

Thu, 24 Mar 2016 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Share prices for British soda makers and distributors plunged after the government announced plans for a tax on drinks with sugar in them. The tax will be 25 to 34 cents per liter depending on the amount of sugar. Fruit juices and milk-based drinks will be exempt from the tax. 

Big Fat Target

Fri, 11 Dec 2015 06:00:00 -0500

(image) London police are investigating claims that someone is handing cards to passengers on the Tube calling the recipients "a fat, ugly human" and saying they "disapprove of your wasting NHS money to treat your selfish greed."

Did Soda Tax Proposals Cause a Decline in Soda Consumption That Started Years Earlier?

Wed, 07 Oct 2015 07:30:00 -0400

New York Times health reporter Margot Sanger-Katz celebrates declining consumption of sugar-sweetened soda, which she calls "the single largest change in the American diet in the last decade." As someone who never drinks full-calorie soda or buys it for my family, I tend to agree that's a positive trend. But as someone who subscribes to the old-fashioned notion that causes precede their effects, I find Sanger-Katz's explanation of this trend—public awareness raised by soda tax supporters such as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter—more than a little implausible. Sanger-Katz's thesis is that even when anti-soda agitators fail to win approval of special levies on sugary drinks (as Nutter did), "they have accomplished something larger" because "in the course of the fight, they have reminded people that soda is not a very healthy product" and "fundamentally changed the way Americans think about soda." But the data she cites do not really support that theory. "Over the last 20 years," Sanger-Katz reports, "sales of full-calorie soda in the United States have plummeted by more than 25 percent." In other words, the downward trend began more than a decade before the soda tax debates in New York state (2009), Washington state (2010), and Philadelphia (2010). Americans began drinking less soda nearly two decades before Berkeley approved a soda tax and San Francisco rejected one, both of which happened last year. Sanger-Katz presents data from Philadelphia as the strongest evidence that politicians should get credit for reductions in soda consumption: The change is happening faster in Philadelphia than in the country as a whole. Daily soda consumption among teenagers, a group closely tracked by federal researchers, dropped sharply—by 24 percent—from 2007 to 2013, compared with about 20 percent for the country. Last month, the city Department of Public Health reported a sustained decline in childhood obesity over the last seven years. Those reductions are not accidents. The soda tax didn't pass. But the debate about it, along with a series of related city policies, helped discourage people from drinking soda. That assertion seems overconfident to me, since the downward trends in soda drinking and obesity cited by Sanger-Katz began before Nutter first proposed a soda tax and before the city launched an ad campaign that she also credits with reducing consumption of sugary drinks. Although it's possible that Nutter's efforts accelerated a pre-existing trend, it does not look that way. The prevalence of daily soda consumption by Philadelphia teenagers, as measured by the CDC's National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (which is conducted every two years), fell by 10 percent between 2007 and 2009, by 11 percent between 2009 and 2011, and by 5 percent between 2011 and 2013. If Nutter gets credit for the slightly bigger drop between 2009 and 2011 (a period that includes his two soda tax proposals), does he also get the blame for the much smaller drop between 2011 and 2013 (a period that includes the ad campaign)? This is not the first time that Sanger-Katz has jumped to conclusions about the impact of government interventions on dietary trends. Last July she suggested that a national decline in calorie consumption that began in 2003 could be explained by policies adopted years later, including Berkeley's 2014 soda tax and federal menu labeling requirements that have not taken effect yet. Maybe Nutter and like-minded politicians reached back in time to the late 1990s and persuaded Americans to drink less soda. But given what we know about causality, it seems more likely that politicians' anti-soda activism and the drop in consumption of sugar-sweetene[...]

Watch Katherine Mangu-Ward Get Heckled About "Industrial Food" on Vice News

Thu, 06 Aug 2015 15:20:00 -0400

In the latest episode of The Business of Life on Vice News, hosted by Reason Contributing Editor Michael Moynihan, I sat down with food big-thinkers Frederick Kaufman and Danielle Nierenberg to talk about the way Americans eat. We fought about GMOs, obesity, organic foods, and whether lentils are the solution to all our problems.

Plus, I get heckled just after the 17:20 mark for defending "industrial food." Check it out.

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