Amici Curiae: Treating Junk Food Like Cigarettes

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) has suggested implementing measures lifted from anti-tobacco campaigns to battle Canada’s obesity epidemic. The multi-pronged approach includes a tax increase on junk food, advertising bans, and perhaps most controversially, the placement of graphic images on the packaging of high calorie foods with low nutritional value such as pop and potato chips. The OMA has released mock-ups of what these warning labels would look like on products – such as the amount of sugar in chocolate milk, the risks to your liver of eating pizza, and diabetes complications from drinking too much grape juice.

Initiatives like these are gaining momentum in North America. New York recently banned the sale of sugary drinks above 16 oz. and the Food and Drug Administration is requiring restaurants across the United States to include the number of calories beside menu items to comply with new health legislation.

In a recent news release, the OMA explains the pressing need for such measures:

“Almost one in three Canadian children – 31.5 percent — is now overweight or obese, up from 14 to 18 percent in the early 1980s. Three-quarters of overweight kids will remain so in adulthood, with health effects ranging from diabetes to certain types of cancer to heart disease – costing Ontario taxpayers $2.2 to $2.5 billion annually.”

The statistics – and cost – of the obesity epidemic are concerning, but is a hardline approach to junk food necessary? Many argue that junk food is not the leading cause of obesity and that it should not be treated like cigarettes – which are the leading cause of lung cancer. Others are concerned about the “nanny-state” and argue that consumers should be able to exercise personal choice when it comes to lifestyle decisions.

With obesity on the rise in North America (especially with our neighbours to the south, two-thirds of which are overweight or obese) something drastic has to be done. While I disagree with elements of this approach – especially graphic images of a decaying foot on children’s juice boxes – this is a troubling issue that shows no signs of stopping without significant intervention.

Copying anti-tobacco legislation, which has been extremely successful in its objective of decreasing tobacco use, may be too simplistic an approach when addressing the obesity epidemic. Merely blaming junk food ignores the many other reasons (financial and cultural) why the problem is occurring.

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