There's been a lot of talk in recent years about the obesity "epidemic" sweeping the developed world.
Let's put aside the fact that obesity is not contagious, and so has little in common with actual epidemics, at least in the classical or historical sense. Let's also put aside the fact that the millions of people in poor countries who don't have enough to eat would trade places with us in a heartbeat.
Obesity is nonetheless a real problem. I myself gained 60 lbs over the past eight years or so (and I almost never consume soft drinks by the way). More seriously, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 25% of Canadian adults are obese, along with nearly 10% of teenagers aged 12 to 17. Reduced life expectancy and increased risk of various diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are the price of putting on the pounds.
But then the question becomes: What should be done about this?
One popular answer trotted out lately is to tax soft drinks. France and Hungary have both gone down this road, and the California town of Richmond has recently proposed doing the same. New York City has taken it a step further and proposed an outright ban on so-called super-sized sodas (larger than 16 ounces or 473 ml) in restaurants.
The problem with taxing or banning soda pop is that the numbers just don't add up. As the Canadian Beverage Association pointed out, based on numbers from Statistics Canada, we Canadians get less than 2.5% of our calories from soft drinks. So if we are serious about reducing obesity, shouldn't we give more attention to the remaining 97.5%? Furthermore, we actually reduced our consumption of soft drinks by 30% between 1999 and 2010, yet obesity rates continued to rise during that period.
There is just no solid proof that taxing soda and other junk food will lead to lower obesity rates. While the media are quick to trumpet any study supporting such a causal link, they are much quieter when equally respectable studies find no connection.
Rather than looking for a top-down solution, would a bottom-up one would work better? For example, in their book, XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame, Patrick Luciani and his co-author Neil Seeman suggest "healthy-living vouchers" modelled after popular education vouchers could be redeemed from places such as gyms, diet classes, vegetable sellers and more. These would allow adults to decide which among several options was best for themselves and their children.
They may be on to something, because apparently the best predictor of whether or not children are obese is how often they brush their teeth, according to J. Eric Oliver, author of Fat Politics. Obviously, the mere fact of brushing your teeth (even if you do so quite frantically) will not, in of itself, reduce your weight. Rather, frequent tooth brushing in this instance is a proxy for good parenting.
Of course, calling for personal and parental responsibility rubs some people the wrong way. They prefer to attack icons of American capitalism like Coca-Cola and McDonald's rather than admit that individual adults must take the blame (or praise) for their own and their children's health. And given the lack of concluding evidence supporting the effectiveness of taxes on soft drinks, perhaps that was their true objective all along.
- Michel Kelly-Gagnon is president of the Montreal Economic Institute (www.iedm.org). The views reflected in this column are his own.