Attorney General William Sorrell believes the fast food industry needs to be called to account for its role in creating the epidemic of obesity among children.
Public health has been a special concern of Sorrellís during his long tenure as attorney general, going back to his support for a settlement with tobacco companies that provided funds the state has used to combat smoking. Over the years as policymakers have diverted the tobacco money away from the anti-tobacco campaign, Sorrell has continued to focus on the role of tobacco as the number one preventable health threat faced by Vermonters.
Lately, he has shifted his attention to the problem of obesity. Three years ago he directed his office to study the obesity crisis, and he produced a report recommending, among other things, a tax on soda. It was an unusual initiative for the stateís chief law enforcement officer, but a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages may become a reality this year. Last week he brought a pediatrician from Dartmouth to testify before the House Health Care Committee on the pernicious effects of television advertising on children and the role of ads in fostering poor nutrition.
ďItís really true, from my perspective as a pediatrician, that any advertising aimed at children under 12 is unfair, because children are developmentally unable to understand the message,Ē said Dr. James Sargent.
What children do understand is that sugar-heavy cereal, candy, soda, juice drinks and other products are fun and desirable because they are associated in the childrenís minds with funny cartoon characters, both in the ads and in programs sponsored by the ads. Too often itís hard for parents to resist the clamor of children beseeching them to buy the sweet but unhealthy products the kids have seen on TV.
Limits on advertising cannot be imposed capriciously. The First Amendmentís guarantee of free speech requires that any limits be justified, as restraints on tobacco advertising are. Thus, for any restrictions on junk food advertising to survive legal challenge, they must rest on a solid evidence about harm to children. It will take time for the state of Vermont or other jurisdictions to build that case.
But as with so many issues of public health or safety, the campaign to protect the public must be a long-term, persistent, ongoing effort that aims, not merely to pass a particular piece of legislation, but eventually to transform the culture. There are a number of examples. Tobacco is one. So is the campaign to curb drunken driving and to require the wearing of seat belts.
Another example is guns. The campaign for laws to improve gun safety has made huge strides since the slaughter at Sandy Hook. Tough gun safety laws have been passed in Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado. The White House has made gun legislation a priority, and though action in Congress remains questionable, gun safety has gained a new high profile as an issue, and opponents, such as the NRA, have been on the defensive.
Real progress on guns, as on junk food, will come if advocates recognize that the war is not won by winning the initial battle. The food industry, like the gun industry, has deep pockets and can wait out the first burst of enthusiasm caused by a sense of crisis. Advocates must be ready for the long haul, pointing to the evidence, making gains where possible.
In Vermont, advocates of healthy eating are making progress in some schools where healthy lunches of local foods are provided. First Lady Michelle Obama recently recognized students from Milton because of their schoolís healthy foods initiative.
The war on junk food advertising may eventually succeed if the broad population gradually learns to accept that healthy eating is not a puritanical agenda foisted on the people by liberal do-gooders but a commonsense step by the people themselves to live better, healthier lives. Commonsense gun legislation fits into the same category.
On the issue of guns, Vermontís leaders have a mixed record. Sen. Patrick Leahy has been a champion of gun safety as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin has played duck-and-cover, as have the leaders of the Legislature. Itís not our job, they say. Let the federal government do it.
Thatís not what they said in Colorado, a rural state with a constituency of hunters.
On the question of obesity, cultural awareness is growing. Making a flap about noxious TV ads is a good thing, even if restraints on advertising wonít happen immediately. Gradually if enough of a flap is made over a long enough period of time, things will change. Thatís how change happens.
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