Public Education May Not Be Enough
Larry Cohen, founder and executive director of the Prevention Institute, a nonprofit national center dedicated to improving community health and equity, told GEN the push to legislate against food and drinks linked to obesity reflects a consensus that public education alone cannot change behavior.
“Public education is necessary, and it’s a part of solutions. But in order to achieve change, the tipping factor for norms change is often policy change,” Cohen said. “We’ve seen more public discussion about the dangers of smoking, or the dangers of soda, or the dangers of sugar when there’s policy discussion. So in a way, it contributes to the education. Expecting we could do this by education alone, when the educational messages are so tilted by industries that are concerned about profit, not health, is totally unrealistic.”
He cited McDonald’s, which according to Kantar Media spent $963 million on U.S. advertising in 2011, up 8.6% over 2010. The fast-food giant has been estimated for years by analysts and others to spend about $2 billion worldwide on marketing annually, a number not confirmed by the company. McDonalds’s—which operated 34,480 restaurants in 119 countries worldwide as of December 31, 2012—has responded to criticism of its menu by citing its addition of salads and lower-calorie items in recent years.
Cohen said that while he found the court decision disappointing, it may ultimately advance future curbs on soda and food linked to obesity.
“Local policies bubble up from one community to another, and they build on one another, whether we’re talking about a soda tax, or nutrition standards for kids’ meals, or having healthy water as part of what’s available in the schools,” Cohen said—the last example an initiative for which Prevention Institute worked with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a few years back.
“What the container issue is about, although it’s very specifically around reducing what’s sold, it’s also about promoting dialogue and norms change. More than cup size, it’s about people paying attention to health,” Cohen said.