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Food is the new tobacco

By D. G. Martin
Posted Tuesday, August 4, 2009

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Chapel Hill, NC - You don’t need to read all of this column to get its message. For North Carolinians it is simply this:

Food is the new tobacco.

Here’s why.

We have known all along that using tobacco products was bad for health. But North Carolina people, as a group, resisted government regulations, restrictions on places it could be consumed, taxes, and even educational programs designed to discourage their use.

We argued that people should be free to make their own choices about what kinds of products they enjoy for relaxation and pleasure. For a long while we argued, too, that there was not real proof that tobacco was causing the cancers, heart attacks, and strokes that were destroying the quality of life (and killing) smokers at higher rates than non-smokes.

We would not admit it, but deep down inside we knew that our beliefs and our arguments in defense of tobacco use had something to do with the great economic benefits tobacco growing and manufacturing were to our state.

Now our smoky rhetoric has been blown away. We say out loud what we should have known all along. Smoking causes bad health. It kills. And it costs the public lots of money in covering the health care expenses of those made sick by their tobacco habits.

Over the last few years in North Carolina, most campuses, workplaces, and other public places have come to prohibit or severely restrict smoking. Recently, the last hospital joined the trend and prohibited smoking.

We no longer argue that the government should not be involved or that it should not limit individual choice when the health impact of a product like tobacco is so great.

What does this have to do with food?

Read UNC-Chapel Hill professor Barry Popkin’s new book, “The World is Fat,” and I think you will come to the conclusion that our eating habits are destroying our good health and quality of life in much the same way the habitual use of tobacco does.

Increasingly the high caloric liquids and food we consume are driving up our weight dramatically. Our agricultural subsidy policies have made high calorie food relatively cheap compared to the higher costs of the healthier fruits and green vegetables. Commercial food products, fast food outlets, restaurants, and school and college cafeterias increase our problem with their added sugars and syrups, their supper-sized large portions, and their pandering to our individual inability to resist.

Keeping a healthy weight is an individual challenge. The consequences of not meeting that challenge are clear: higher incidences of diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, and early death.

But most of us eat on.

We eat and eat and create in ourselves a life of bad health that will require extensive and expensive health treatments that others (taxpayers) will have to cover.

So does government have a role? Should it restrict or tax high calorie foods? Should it discourage, rather than subsidize, the growing of high calorie food products? Should it penalize those of us who won’t eat healthy or reward those of us who do?

Popkin says the government has to act.

He suggests it start with a tax on high calorie drinks, which he calls “super negatives.”

He says that “Juice, soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, all caloric beverages except skim milk” have little nutricional value other than calories.

But their empty calories may add 500 calories to an individual’s daily intake and make the difference, over time, between healthy weight and obesity.

For legislators looking for new revenue, the health argument provides the same kind of rationale that first led to a tax on cigarettes.

But an additional soft drink tax will be just a start.

Watch out.

Food is the new tobacco.


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries,” a guide to family owned homecooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways

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Food is the new tobacco

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