The debate over obesity and public health is usually black and white. It’s obvious who the bad guys are: junk food peddlers.
But last year, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo and about a dozen other firms committed to cut advertising of unhealthy products to children. This week, a spokesman for the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative said that “television advertising to children of certain foods has virtually ceased during children’s programs”. The firms are also reducing sugar and salt in some products.
Sounds good? Well, the president of the Public Health Association of Australia described it as “incredibly feeble”. Not “a step in the right direction”, or “good, but they could do more”, but literally so feeble it defies credibility.
Call this the “Healthy Menu Choices” conundrum.
For decades, corporations have been told they need to get “socially responsible” and think about more than just profits. And few corporations are more harangued than those selling unhealthy food. They have been demonised by the expanding public health establishment, who are certain children’s minds are being warped and their bellies expanded by the sinister alliance of sugar and advertising.
Milton Friedman wrote in 1970 that the only social responsibility of business was to increase its profits â€” profits being how businesses figure out whether they’re providing value. Friedman wrote in vain. Corporate philanthropy has become a bigger and bigger part of the business world. For the food industry, this corporate social responsibility means placating public health activists.
So McDonald’s – the very embodiment of unhealthy eating – has introduced salads. It has struck a deal with the Heart Foundation. In New Zealand, it has a relationship with Weight Watchers. Through the responsible marketing initiative, the confectionery industry is trying to show it is as supportive of a healthy Australia as chocolate makers ever could be.
Yet for all these attempts at conciliation, food companies just get demonised more. Each effort is condemned. If everything they do is going to be dismissed as the cynical expansion of corporate power, why should they try?
There’s a big anti-business component to the push for a nanny state. Many public health activists believe the blame for obesity lies with corporations – not with the choices of the people who buy unhealthy food. In the activists’ view, marketing is making people eat things that they would rather avoid, if only they weren’t so entranced by all the flashing lights and catchy jingles.
Hence the attention public health activists pay to multinationals, and the lack of attention they pay to, say, local fish and chip shops, pizzerias or Indian restaurants. Or Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant â€” sometimes rich people eat bad things, too.
Last year, McDonald’s started sponsoring a maths tutoring program, Maths Online, for Australian students. The program charged students $40 a month, but McDonald’s sponsorship means it is now free.
The McDonald’s logo is displayed at the bottom of the front page. It’s not like kids are multiplying cheeseburgers and dividing Happy Meals. But, of course, one prominent public health activist, nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, celebrated by asking: “Are we happy [to] sell our children to McDonald’s?”
The public health establishment likes to see itself as a bunch of impartial medical professionals, but it is a coalition of self-styled consumer advocates, “lifestyle advisers” and politicised academics. They see our health as a standoff between corporate profits and the health profession.
But the reality is more mundane, and more frustrating: not everybody believes that every fatty steak is doing them damage.
Certainly, most Australians value their fitness, weight, and life expectancy. But that is not all they value. Unhealthy food sells not because of insidious corporate messaging, but because people like it. Reducing the capacity of corporations to advertise their products won’t stop people wanting fatty or salty food. Unless you believe our primal taste instincts were invented in a boardroom.
So when public health types reduce complex issues of obesity and unhealthy lifestyles to a diatribe about the power of big business, it’s an emotional argument â€” not an honest one.
Individuals – and in the case of children, their parents – are the ones who choose what they eat. If public health activists want to influence that, they’ll give up the anti-corporate grandstanding and start treating us as if we make our own decisions.