Heavy denial

February 09, 2004

THE WORLD Health Organization wants to fight obesity and guess who's objecting? Here's a hint: It's the country with the biggest obesity problem, and also the world's richest and most powerful junk food producers.

Yes, the United States is resisting a worldwide campaign against obesity because, according to the Bush administration, there need to be more scientific studies before governments can say with certitude what the problem is. This was the defense that was used by the tobacco companies when people wanted to restrict smoking, and more recently by industrial polluters (and their friends in government) when people began to worry about global warming.

But now it's taken to a point somewhere past absurdity: The U.S. government wants more scientific proof of the link between food and obesity. The same government that pounced on dubious evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is stoutly maintaining (literally) a position of skepticism on the shockingly controversial proposition that eating too much sugary junk food is going to make you fat.

You might think the government would be alone on this one, but it's not. The sugar producers and the corn syrup refiners are right in step. Together they are battling a WHO plan to launch a global education effort designed to help people understand that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is a healthy choice, to persuade people to eat less sugar, and to encourage restrictions on food advertising aimed at children. Nothing in the WHO plan would be mandatory.

The astonishing thing about obesity is that it is a growing problem worldwide. Even as hunger continues to stalk some parts of the globe, elsewhere - and not only in rich countries - waistlines are expanding. WHO estimates suggest that a billion adults are overweight around the world, and that a third of them are obese.

There are several reasons for that, but one is that food is cheaper now - in real terms - than it has ever been. In the United States, which is one of the world's great agricultural producers, the only way for farmers to make a living with prices so low is to produce as much as they possibly can, even at the cost of degrading the soil. The problem, then, is this: What to do with all that food? The solution: Process it. Super-size the portions. Advertise it heavily. Turn all that corn into corn syrup. Persuade people to eat snacks that don't make them feel full. Export as much as possible.

Countries around the world are following the American example, even though, in some, their own farmers are being undercut by cheap American exports. Now WHO wants to help local governments offer a word of caution against the tide of chips and soda and Big Macs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pays lip service to the idea but is fighting a rearguard action of delays and technical nitpicking. The department's chief, Tommy G. Thompson, appears to be determined to keep the campaign from taking root. Talk about a harvest of shame.

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