Ban or Tax Nutrition-Poor Food? One Medical Group Says Yes

Jenni Laidman

October 27, 2014

Governments should either restrict the sale of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods or increase taxes on such foods to stem the rise of obesity, according to an editorial published online October 27 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Decrying the ineffectiveness of current obesity policies and treatments, John Fletcher, MB, BChir, MPH, editor-in-chief, and Kirsten Patrick, MBBCh DA, deputy editor, ask, "Why do we continue to rely on broad public health guidance and treatments of dubious effectiveness as the main thrust of our approach to managing obesity?"

They contend that stopping the increase in adult and childhood obesity "cannot be achieved without a new approach" and that government is not doing enough.

"Our current approach to obesity relies on the assumption that people have choices, often fail to make the right ones, and should be educated and helped to make better choices. This view is simplistic and clearly absurd," they write. "Are millions of people really choosing to be overweight? People are not as free to choose as we would like to believe."

The authors write that humans evolved to desire high-calorie food, a survival advantage during times of scarcity. "Where food is inexpensive and easily available, biological processes related to eating can mirror addiction and will lead to our destruction," they write.

Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Medscape Medical News he doubts a call for taxes or restrictions on sales of some foods would be received favorably in the United States on a national level. "We certainly think there's some evidence that you may use tax policy in particular to change behavior. But the likelihood of that happening on a national level is very, very low."

However, the American Public Health Association already, in 2012, called for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The editorial authors note that the marketplace guarantees that food manufacturers will be driven to increase profits by manipulating foods that most appeal to our appetites, and then marketing those foods aggressively. Only government can interfere with that cycle.

"Government can counteract these tactics through the tried-and-tested approaches of taxation and regulation that have been applied with success to reduce smoking rates. It is time to apply this same thinking to the food delivery systems that are making us fat."

"Timing is everything," for these kinds of efforts, Dr Benjamin added. "We hope our colleagues in Canada provide some momentum."

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

CMAJ. Published online October 27, 2014. Full text


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