The sweet and sour of a progressive society
By Ken Root
There are some actions of society that we call “progressive.” They start with cultural awareness of a problem. When pushed by activists, the issue becomes a movement and legislative action ensues. In our history, we saw this in slavery, women’s right to vote, prohibition of alcohol and vehicle safety. Now we are seeing another cause rise to prominence: reduction of fat in our diet.
There is broad public awareness that we are a much fatter society than we have ever been. Having access to foods with a high caloric count was seen as good in the lean years of the 1930s. When World War II ended, we succeeded in making enough money to buy foods that pleased us such as Dairy Queen soft ice cream and a lot more doughnuts, cakes and pies. We ate more meat and liked the fat content, as our natural tendency is to feel satisfied from intake of foods rich and smooth.
Like everything else in a free society, we overdid it. In the 1960s, the government-sponsored food and nutrition programs greatly improved the diets of those in poverty. Welfare commodities were distributed from government storehouses and had lots of calories from carbohydrates and fat. It was a great victory that all Americans had enough to eat. But by the 1970s, it became apparent Americans were having a higher incidence of disease brought on by sugar and fat intake. Obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, hypertension and heart disease were all linked to our diet that contained processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
In late July, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and self-proclaimed consumer watchdog, introduced a bill in Congress that would tax sugary drinks. It is not the first time a sugar or fat tax has been proposed, and industry groups say it is the same old thing and won’t get out of committee. On this go-around, they may be right, but I think we are going to see legislation or litigation that will address the price and availability of foods deemed debilitating to our health.
If we really look at ourselves, our friends and our children, we will see that some of them are plump. Attempting, one day, to determine what color shoes I was wearing, I noted I have the largest girth of my life and realized I would be healthier and have greater self-esteem if I were thinner and more fit. But, while I was eating a few strips of bacon and drinking a high-octane cola, I did some self-analysis and forgave myself for my failings. Here’s how I did it: I evaluated thin people and think if they got sick, they’d die right soon. I, however, have enough fat reserve that I could survive until the doctors find a cure! But, when the sun breaks through the haze of denial, society realizes that we are digging our graves with our spoons, and we need to do something about this problem. When this becomes a broad-based mindset, there are many who will dedicate themselves to the task.
I omitted the most recent health issue/social cause that has changed our behavior: tobacco. I think there is a very strong parallel with sugar in the health aspects of the products. Medical evidence suggests there is a huge cost to our society from the negative health effects of tobacco. The state attorneys general brought suit against the tobacco industry and won huge settlements that go to offset the medical costs caused by cigarettes. It is not a stretch to get a similar ruling on the sale of sugar and fat. The incidence of Type II diabetes from high intake of sugar could be enough to cause the court system to rule against food manufacturers as they did against tobacco.
It should be noted that cigarettes haven’t been banned. The government needs the revenue smokers pay to continue their consumption. Smoking rates have dropped but they haven’t been eliminated. Even smoke-free vehicles and buildings haven’t made people stop smoking. The goal of a sugar tax would be to decrease obesity, and that in turn would decrease healthcare costs to society. There are already many social programs that promote more exercise by students, workers and seniors, but they don’t prevent a sizable segment of our society from consuming large quantities of food that debilitate health.
The government is already on a quest to improve our diet. The infamous school lunch menu change to healthier foods has been a major controversy since first lady Michelle Obama declared it to be her primary cause. The USDA limits the purchase of unhealthy food under the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). It does not, however, prevent the purchase of sugary drinks under the basic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) , which reaches almost 20 percent of U.S. households. It does deny the purchase of tobacco and alcohol with food and nutrition dollars, as both have been defined as health hazards.
Ideally, education and personal responsibility will take care of our health problems. But until that day in paradise, we have to decide whether government will attempt to change behavior for the good of the one and the many. Labeling of processed foods is a first step, but taxation to shift the price so healthy foods are less expensive will follow. With the likelihood of government-paid healthcare for a large majority of Americans, the progressive nature of our society seems obvious. We will establish a “user fee” for those who wish to consume products that may later manifest themselves as a cost to society.
Take a look around in your local convenience store. The store stocks what people want to buy. The owner wants to avoid waste and spoilage, so almost everything has a shelf life of a half century. Government action, with a majority of society’s blessing, will change the price and availability of everything from Slim Jims to chocolate milk. Who knows? Great merchandisers that they are, Casey’s General Stores may change its name to “Mighty Casey’s” and post its current selection of fruits and vegetables above the price of gasoline. Stand by for progress.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.