scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Obesity, a new kind of smoke

The war on smoking can help guide the nation’s fight against obesity. Trash food can be the cigarette. Obesity can be lung cancer.

This week, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Weight of the Nation conference in Washington, researchers projected that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030. That is more than triple the rates a half-century ago. The health care costs of obesity have, by most accounts, surpassed the medical costs of smoking.

"Obesity is analogous to tobacco,'' Justin Trogdon, a research economist at RTI International in North Carolina and co-author of the 42-percent projection, said in a telephone interview. "There is an obvious difference in that there is no such thing as a healthy cigarette. You can't just demonize food exactly as tobacco. But where they are similar is that cancers from smoking and diseases from obesity are completely preventable diseases."


Meanwhile, a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Type 2 diabetes, once virtually unknown in children, is now afflicting 3,600 new kids a year and is much harder to treat with drugs than in adults, even with increased physical activity. More frightening still is that the CDC estimates that while there are about 26 million diabetics in the United States, there are 79 million more Americans with blood glucose levels high enough to be classified as prediabetic.

The anti-smoking campaigns resulted in plummeting smoking rates. There are now 45 million adult smokers in the United States, compared with 73 million adults and 12 million youths who are considered obese.

Yet, even as Michelle Obama touts healthy eating in the "Let's Move" campaign, the food, soda, and grocery industries have waged an unprecedented war against even voluntary guidelines to stem the marketing to children of unhealthy products loaded with sugar, starches, and fats.

The best example is a working group established in 2009 in a bipartisan act of Congress to recommend standards for the marketing of foods consumed by children 17 and younger. The Sunlight Foundation reported last week that the industry poured $41 million since 2010 into the coffers of politicians, Democrat as well as Republican, to destroy the effort. Reuters recently reported that the food and beverage industry more than doubled its lobbying under President Obama, soaring to $175 million.


All of it achieved the desired result. A year ago, the working group issued voluntary guidelines that would have broadly covered nearly all forms of advertising, as well as sports sponsorships, philanthropy, characters on cereal boxes, and toys accompanying fast-food meals for youths 17 and under.

By fall, the industry had persuaded the working group to scale back the guidelines to cover only children 11 and under. Finally, all the senators and representatives who received donations from the food industry worked into federal legislation a provision that effectively prevents the working group from even publishing a final report.

The most dispiriting thing was that President Obama signed it without a peep. As for Michelle Obama, when Let's Move started, a White House task force on obesity devoted a significant segment of a 2010 report to the $1.6 billion spent by fast-food, beverage, and snack companies in 2006 to market to young people — with disproportionate usage of cartoon-like characters on the products with the lowest nutrition. But a 2011 progress report said nothing about marketing to children.

Yesterday at the Weight of the Nation conference, the Institute of Medicine released a report that concluded that just telling people to say no to trash food and soda is not enough to stop the rise in obesity. It said the "obesity-promoting environment" is too overwhelming. One of its key recommendations was, "It is urgent for food, beverage, restaurant, and media industries to take voluntary action to improve marketing at children aged 2 to 17."


Industry has already drawn the line in the sand against such action. The question now is whether the White House, Congress, and the nation will fight this assault on our children.They are going up in a new kind of smoke.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at