Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Iremember a particularly paranoid moment I had in those paranoid weeks following Sept. 11.

The media was reporting that Americans were taking comfort in junk food. Calming their nerves with cake. Easing their sorrow with macaroni and cheese. Could this, I wondered, be part of the terrorists’ plot? In their zeal to destroy America, could they have launched a nefarious scheme to make Americans even fatter than they already are—disabling them with diabetes, killing them with heart disease, bringing the healthcare system to its knees and bankrupting the nation?

Actually, obesity in America is one thing we cannot blame on the terrorists. Americans have been packing on the avoirdupois at such an alarming rate that the Surgeon General now characterizes obesity as a national health emergency. Today, more than 60 percent of American adults qua lify as overweight or obese. Cases of Type 2 diabetes are skyrocketing. More than 300,000 people die of obesity-related illnesses each year—carnage that approaches that of smoking.

So if we can’t pin our growing girth on the terrorists, who can we blame it on? How about the food industry, that efficient supplier of 3,800 fat- and carbohydrate-laden calories per capita per day?

Ronald McDonald, meet Joe Camel. There is a growing movement among lawyers, academics and activists to apply the tactics that brought down tobacco to the $900 billion food business. Strategies in this nascent food fight include possible class-action suits against purveyors of fast food and junk food; the banning of soft-drink vending machines from schools and food advertising from children’s television; and a federal tax on soft drinks to finance nutrition education and marketing. Imagine the day when a Big Mac’s packaging reads, “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that fast food causes obesity and increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, asthma and certain cancers.”

The link between the food industry’s unholy trinity—fast food, junk food and soft drinks—and obesity is not as clear-cut as the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Can one single out McDonald’s when there are so many contributing factors? It is no exaggeration to say that American life itself makes us fat: how we work (sitting at a desk), how we relax (sitting on a couch), how we eat (sitting in a car at a drive-through window). And what about personal responsibility? After all, you can lead a teenager to a Coke machine, but you can’t make him drink.

Interesting argument, but as we know, it didn’t do the tobacco industry any good. To counter such reasoning, New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of the forthcoming book Food Politics, points to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year to get people to eat more. She notes that in the last decade, the amount of food advertising during children’s prime viewing hours has doubled—as has the percentage of overweight children.

Given activists’ track record, it may not be too soon for food advertisers to consider how their commercials might come across before a congressional committee or a court of law. With their special deals touting the supersized, the double-crusted and the triple-topped, do not the fast-food companies encourage overeating in the face of indisputable evidence that too many calories can kill? And how come so few actors in fast-food ads are portly, let alone overweight? Is this any less deceptive than ads featuring glamorous, laughing smokers?

On the bright side, there could be money and reputations to be made by born-again marketers encouraging Americans to eat less rather than more. A major demand of food activists is lots more money to market good nutrition—and, with any luck, they’ll get Burger King and Frito-Lay to pay for it.

Think of the glory that awaits the ad agency that makes the USDA Food Guide Pyramid cool. Imagine co-op advertising combining several social-engineering agendas in tag lines like, “Talk to your kids about drugs over a home-cooked meal rich in whole grains, vegetables and fruit.”

Or how about another “Truth” campaign? The dad in the Domino’s commercial who devours all the Cinna Stix between the entrance hall and the kitchen would not be able to see past his gut to his shoes. The kids in ads for sugar-drenched cereals and salty, oil-soaked snacks would all be size husky, and onscreen statistics would outline their reduced life expectancy.

And don’t forget the ad with the body bags—supersized body bags, of course.