The Economist on Obesity: A Disappointing Ideological Conclusion

This week’s The Economist featured a story on rising global epidemic of obesity that was part of the Special Report on Obesity. I was very enthused by the initial discussion that mirrored much of the analysis that the Development Roast has offered in the past. Yet a grave disappointment ensued when the piece entitled Fat Chance seemed to contradict much of the preceding argument when reaching its conclusion.

The article begins with the now very familiar recounting of the global statistics that show obesity and its accompanying diseases such as diabetes, heart conditions and food-related cancers as the biggest killers worldwide, in both advanced and developing nations. It then went on to admit that such a widespread trend, which is imposing a heavy cost on both public and private purses, as well as causing a reduction in labor productivity, presents a dilemma for a magazine. This is because ideologically it does not like the state meddling in private affairs, seeing individual private action as the route to society-wide change. In light of the obesity epidemic, it was willing to make the concession that:

state intervention is justified where it saves people from great harm at little cost to themselves. Only zealots see seat-belt laws as an affront to personal liberty. Anti-smoking policies, controversial at first, are generally viewed as a success.

Even more of a concession is made when the article examines Whose Fault is Fat?

Obesity is, at its heart, the result of many personal decisions. But the rise of obesity—across many countries and disproportionately among the poor—suggests that becoming fat cannot just be blamed on individual frailty. Millions of people, of all cultures, did not become lazy gluttons at the same time, en masse. Broader forces are at work [emphasis added].

Unfortunately, while touching on a vital point of the possible causes of the rise of obesity, the articles stops right there, well short of actually providing its audience with a documentation of what those “broader forces” may be. For instance, the full special report does touch on the change in people’s environment as a factor; for example, our jobs have become sedentary and so demanding that most people eat out rather than in. It also briefly mentions that widespread availability of cheap junk food, possible partly because of corn subsidies in the United States that have led to the corn-olonisation of human diets and biology, is seen by many as a problem. However, it does not discuss the fact that poor people in rich countries are often left with no choice as the lack of fresh ingredients and healthy foods in their neighborhood leaves their communities barren of nutrients, with researchers calling such environment food deserts. Nor did it mention the possible effects that the increase in trade of highly processes foods and drinks has had on the health of populations of entire continents. Latin America being the case in point, with an Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) study arguing that the “Unites States exports obesity to Mexico.” Meanwhile, the fact that measly public health education budgets can not compete in a system where trillions of dollars are spent on junk food and drink advertising that tap emotional buttons to persuade billions of people to consume more of them. It is not surprising that these issues get little hearing. If the causation between these systemic factors and obesity was accepted as a premise, then the only logical conclusion would indeed be to reverse the trends systemically. This may involve curtailing the production and distribution of the worst kinds of foods on a national or even global level, not mere taxation of fatty foods the report does discuss, a policy recommendation the Economist is never likely to make.

The next two paragraphs give a few examples of small changes that governments can make to encourage people to eat less; namely those focused on taxing ‘bad behaviors’ or ‘bad foods’. Disappointingly, it talks mainly of Denmark abandoning its own fat tax only a year after implementation. The article then gives some hypothetical solutions for implementation by schools, urban planners and health workers in order to educate and encourage eating less. The main special report goes further by discussing where such efforts at the level of individual have been less than exciting, with results showing that health education and awareness has little effect on curbing rising obesity.

Despite its admission that state intervention is needed when societal ills run wild, and despite its own presentation of evidence that small piecemeal policy and education efforts focusing on individuals have had little to no effect on obesity rates thus far, without even considering the possibility of broader systemic changes, the Economist’s overarching conclusion was this:

In the end, the responsibility and power to change lie primarily with individuals. Whether people go on eating till they pop, or whether they opt for the healthier, slimmer life, will have a bigger effect on the future of the species than most of the weighty decisions that governments make. [emphasis added]

This begs the question: Was the conclusion chosen just so that it fit the magazine’s free market, individualist ideology?

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Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at INESAD.


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