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Nutritionists Want to Regulate the Food Industry Like Tobacco

The Lancet Commission proposes a tax on red meat as one method to fight the "syndemic."
A woman shops for frozen foods on an aisle across from sodas and other sugary drinks for sale at a supermarket in Monterey Park, California.

Some local governments have to combat obesity by taxing sugary sodas.

On Sunday, a group of public-health researchers condemned food production for its role in public-health and climate crises. In its new report, the Lancet Commission calls for a global treaty to combat what it calls the "three gravest threats to human health and survival": climate change, obesity, and undernutrition.

Here's how these are connected—and what can be done about it.

The 'Syndemic'

Traditionally, "syndemic" has been used to describe the interaction of diseases. Here, the commission borrows the term to emphasize the links between an unholy trinity—climate change, obesity, and malnutrition—which interact, co-occur, "and share common underlying societal drivers," the authors say.

Some public-health experts have praised the commission for presenting these problems as interconnected (although it does misconstrue the meaning of the term, according to the anthropologist who coined it). For example, research shows that obesity and malnutrition are connected: People who are obese often consume cheaper foods that are high in calories, but low in nutrients. Food production also depends on and feeds into the warming climate, as crop failure and extreme weather increase food insecurity among the world's poorest populations. Meanwhile, richer nations may have greater access to food, but their wealth is also tied to rising obesity rates and a bigger carbon footprint. The report explains this apparent contradiction: In countries like the United States, economic growth and other social factors—urbanization, transportation, increased access to ultra-processed food—have contributed to the obesity epidemic.

The commission points to these forces, concluding that politicians and scientists can't treat one epidemic without the other. But how, then, should they be treated?

Regulating 'Big Food' Like Big Tobacco

The report models its policy recommendations on the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a 2005 treaty dedicated to ending tobacco use, and the first international health resolution of its kind. This treaty focused on taxes and other measures to reduce supply and demand for tobacco: health warnings on packaging, bans on advertising and sponsorship, smoke-free spaces, and legislation cracking down on the illegal tobacco trade. Helped along in part by recent efforts, the WHO finds tobacco use has steadily declined since the 1980s.

The Lancet Commission would like to replicate this success with the food and beverage industries. "Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support human life, unhealthy food and beverage products ... are not a necessity," the authors say. "The commonalities of tobacco, unhealthy food and beverage commodities, and fossil fuels lie principally in the damage they induce and the [behaviors] of the corporations that profit from them." Experts have argued that both Big Tobacco and 'Big Food' put industry concerns over public health.

A Red Meat Tax

The report calls for measures that go after products high in sugar and salt—and the companies that make them—with subsidies for healthier competitors, public monitoring, and other measures. "The imperative for food systems to provide the basis for healthy diets should be articulated in all policies that shape them, from agricultural production through to retail," the authors write.

To this end, the commission suggests one of this country's oldest and best weapons, used successfully against Big Tobacco (and now favored for fighting climate change): taxation. Some local governments have already tried this with soda; outside the U.S., many countries are experimenting with a carbon tax. Now, the report suggests, red meat could be next. Eating red meat on a regular basis has been linked to an increased risk of obesity (and cardiovascular disease and diabetes), and livestock production accounts for 19 percent of all greenhouse gases, making it a major contributor to climate change.

Problems With Implementation

As with tobacco, politicians who want to implement these recommendations face a well-funded foe: The food and beverage industry, which has previously opposed efforts to reduce agriculture subsidies and tax sugary drinks, spent $29 million on lobbying in 2018, according to non-partisan think tank The Center for Responsive Politics.

On this point, the commission has already received pushback from farmers and scientists working toward more sustainable forms of agriculture; another Lancet report—this one endorsing a plant-based diet—provoked similar outrage earlier this month.

In response, the commission members cite both the U.S.'s withdrawal from climate change agreements and "powerful lobbying forces" as barriers to regulation. "We're under no illusion that this is going to be quick," co-chair William Dietz, who is also a professor at George Washington University, said during a press conference on Monday.

The fight against tobacco took decades. As Pacific Standard's Kate Wheeling explained earlier this month, when it comes to climate change, we may not have that long.