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Stigmatizing the Obese and Criminalizing Food

Well-meaning policymakers are constantly advocating for specific solutions to societal problems. They intend to create a better world and often they do.

In the process, their good purpose is sometimes hijacked by unintended consequences. FDA Matters believes this is the inevitable fate of policies that tell Americans what foods they are allowed to eat.

I applaud the enthusiasm of public health advocates for their anti-obesity initiatives and hope a large number of Americans will cut their food intake and make wise food choices. Unfortunately, unintended consequences are likely to neutralize these public health efforts, resulting in little or no net progress against obesity. It is a wasted opportunity.

Stigmatizing the obese. I suspect that most obese people (1/4 of the American population) already experience substantial negative feedback about their weight. It comes from family and friends, strangers in the mall, and the persistent cultural message that “thin is in.” Obese people surely feel they are under assault from the world around them.

In the current environment, the self-worth of obese people is under attack by society…and ill-will toward the obese is increasingly acceptable. These are not effective ways to encourage behavioral changes.

Public health may not have caused the cultural shift toward stigmatizing obesity…but the public health community has a responsibility—by its utterances and its campaigns—not to make the situation worse.

These are foreseeable, albeit unintended, consequences of campaigns to reduce obesity. Public health should not be complicit. There is still time to send a more nuanced message that discourages ridicule of individuals who are obese and provides more encouragement and assistance to those who struggle to lose weight.

Criminalizing Food. Efforts to restrict access to foods that are sugary, fatty, salty, high-calorie, etc. are also doomed to failure. People want these foods. And by now Americans should understand that prohibition is not an effective public health strategy.

Where access to foods is restricted, black markets will form. A recent BBC news story describes an enterprising English lad who was caught selling “crisps” (British equivalent of our potato chips) at his school. He was suspended for violating the school’s “healthy snacks policy.” With true entrepreneurial spirit, he had also marked up the price.

Things are just starting to heat up on this side of the Atlantic. Last year, New York City decided to severely limit school bake sales and regulate what foods are allowed in school vending machines. Ironically, sports programs are likely to be the hardest hit by loss of income from these sources.

We are not to the point of criminalizing foods. But I worry that moralism about food is on the ascendancy. It is absurd to be worrying about “food pushers” lurking on the edge of the school grounds trying to corrupt our youth. It is sad to see time, energy and money diverted from what really counts: improving nutritional education and increasing support for obese people who want help losing weight.

Our relationship to food is both complex and highly emotional. By all means, let’s spread the public health message that obesity has serious personal health consequences. But we need to do it in a way that helps people, not hurts them. To do this, we must be careful that the unintended consequences don’t ruin the good that could be achieved.


The BBC story on the student suspended for selling unhealthy snacks on school grounds:


A description of the situation in New York City:


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