Legal scholar argues for combating obesity by regulating advertising and providing economic incentives.
Neither the law nor lawyers have traditionally been concerned with preventing obesity. Yet in a recent paper, Roger Magnusson, a law professor at the University of Sydney, argues that law and regulation can help prevent obesity by addressing the economic, social, and technological factors that contribute to weight gain.
Magnusson notes that several characteristics of modern-day society can drive energy imbalance and weight gain: fatty foods are available at a low cost, people transport themselves in cars, entertainment such as television is often passive, and people frequently eat processed foods.
Magnusson argues for a broad governmental approach to obesity prevention, coordinated by an inter-departmental task force which would involve departments of health, transportation, agriculture and food, education, and taxation to achieve the goal of preventing obesity.
Magnusson also proposes that governments regulate and reduce advertising of high sugar, high salt, and high saturated fat foods to children. He notes that in 2006, U.S. companies spent $1.6 billion promoting food and beverages for children, the vast majority of which consisted of soda, fast food, and breakfast cereals. Magnusson suggests that governments may want restrict food advertising not only for designated children’s programming but also during “peak viewing” periods for children.
In addition, Magnusson notes that governments should offer economic incentives to promote healthy eating. This would include funding initiatives to make fresh fruit and vegetables more accessible to low-income families. He also urges governments to provide incentives for employers to implement worksite health and wellness programs, such as the weight loss and smoking cessation programs covered under section 2705 of the recent U.S. health care reform legislation.
Magnusson also argues for regulation limiting the use of unhealthy ingredients such as salt and saturated fat in food products. He notes that the government can begin by setting voluntary food industry targets for salt and fat reduction. Only after voluntary measures have failed would government proceed to more direct forms of regulation. Magnusson proposes a code of practice to be developed by an appropriate government agency which would set forth standards for salt and saturated fat reduction in food products. The agency would then require food manufacturers whose market share exceeds a pre-determined minimum to adhere to reduction standards and disclose their progress publicly.
Magnusson acknowledges that implementing a broad set of regulatory policies will meet significant resistance from not only the food and advertising industries but also advocates of free market systems. He asserts that his proposals, though, will are focused on creating a healthy environment, not attacking personal autonomy. Nevertheless, he predicts that progress on implementing his proposed policies will most likely be incremental.