On March 11, 2013, a judge invalidated New York City’s ban on large sugary drinks, one day before it was to go into effect. The lead lawyer for the beverage industry was quoted describing the regulation as created by “scientists in the room, working with the mayor, creating a regulation here that is going to cost people a ton of money.”
It is dismal indeed that such a promising measure was struck down not on the basis of ineffectiveness or public harm, but rather, because the billion-dollar beverage industry would lose its profits. It becomes even more depressing when you acknowledge that the population of obese Americans has been gaining new members at an alarming rate over the past decade. But as with most issues nowadays, this problem has been quantified. People are beginning to pay attention to the downright frightening statistics that have been uncovered: More than half of American adults are considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the adult population – 40 million people – clinically defined as obese. The number of children considered obese has exceeded 12 million.
Sometimes it’s pretty easy to forget about America’s weight issue. It’s not just about being in Stanford, where our chiseled athletes look as though they’ve been finely sculpted from marble and the rest of us wear expensive (and very forgiving) athletic clothing to achieve the same end. Indeed, California, the virtual land of the vegans, has spearheaded a powerful movement towards organic produce, yoga, and nearly inedible wheatgrass drinks. We’ve been impressively progressive in this sense. In fact, after spending some time in Mississippi, where I didn’t encounter one green food item apart from some fried Brussels sprouts, I can personally appreciate this movement.
But as always, Stanford proves to be an exceptional case. This is not a case complicated by locale. It’s a problem that has spilled over into the economic fabric of our society, ingrained in the capitalistic motivations of the industries that have unfailingly fed our midnight cravings. In other words, selling and consuming unhealthy food has become dangerously economical. And while students here are blessed with healthy and relatively inexpensive dining options, even Town & Country Village offers some less-healthy-than-granola food items that, if consumed without caution, can pose a serious threat to the student body.
We’ve seen this problem before, wrapped in a little white cylinder. The tobacco industry has by no means been an innocent spectator on the sidelines of America’s declining health – and it can be argued that the food industry’s impact on public health rivals that of the tobacco companies. But with the help of Congress, the public was able to employ a mixture of advertising sanctions and aggressive taxation to shrink the size and influence of the smoking industry to a fraction of its former self.
America’s weight problem also has a solution – but it’s important to note that these kinds of nationwide failures are neither coincidences nor accidents. In the case of rising obesity, they are the results of carefully constructed and interconnected corporate systems with three main players: the food industry, the weight-loss industry, and the healthcare industry. Thus, even as very educated Stanford students, we are not impervious to the very industries that feed us, strengthen us and cure us, seemingly with the best intentions.
The first player, the food industry, presents a paradox in and of itself. The New York Times recently published an article titled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” The long feature chronicles a hush-hush rendezvous at the Pillsbury headquarters, where the most powerful men in the food industry convened a conclave starring CEOs from Nestle, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. It was no longer an option for these companies to keep ignoring the rising rate of obesity, which had been publicly attributed to their products.
Although bringing together the men and women who had revolutionized the food market seemed to be a step in the right direction towards solving America’s weight crisis, the meeting turned out to be relatively fruitless – the consequence of a frustrating, game theoretic Prisoner’s Dilemma in which no one company in the food industry is willing to cut down on sugar or far content for fear of losing their market share. Thus, food isn’t getting any healthier; in fact, it’s getting sweeter, saltier and fattier. The food companies refuse to consider the possibility that perhaps by cooperating fully with one another, they can capture an even greater population of Americans who truly want to eat healthier, as well as those who don’t know any better.
And as if two players weren’t bad enough, the third presents an even more disheartening dilemma: the medical industry. Although it may be the less obvious profiteer from increasing obesity rates, the healthcare system is making enormous gains from the increase in likelihood of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Time magazine recently published a revealing expose on the counterintuitively large six and seven-figure salaries that executives in both for-profit and non-profit receive. This is deeply rooted in the fact that hospitals collect the vast majority of their profits from diagnosing sickness, not from improving health. In particular, the fee-per-service system rakes in money from the blood tests, MRIs, pet scans and other tests that the growing number of sick patients undergo. The bottom line? Hospitals do not gain from a healthier America any more than the food and weight-loss industries do.
Stanford has a neat take on these three industries. We eat at dining halls, work out in Arrillaga, and go to Vaden (as sparingly as possible) in a contained, regulated manner. Stanford, in a classically paternalistic manner, understands that left to our own devices, we easily fall prey to a profit-driven market. But as soon as we get to the very edges of Campus Drive, we become increasingly vulnerable to the economic traps that our food, weight-loss, and medical industries have laid out for us.
This is a problem that our public policy majors and professors have and will continue to tackle. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to think of a social issue that hasn’t at least been partially resolved by the great minds we have on campus.
But as for the rest of us, this is something to think about, if not with our heads, at least with our stomachs. I’m floored every single day by how healthy and happy students are here at Stanford. Thus, even if it’s really just to preserve our place on College Prowler’s college rankings, let’s keep ourselves as healthy and happy as humanly possible.
Keep yourself healthy by emailing Uttara at email@example.com.