This shift abroad mirrors the strategy of the tobacco industry as anti-smoking efforts and cigarette taxes have pushed the U.S. smoking rate down steadily over the past half-century, from 42 to 18 percent. Economists have estimated that every 10-percent rise in the price of a pack of cigarettes reduces cigarette consumption in the United States by as much as 5 percent, helping explain why American tobacco companies are looking more to China and other less regulated and taxed markets for future growth. It does not seem coincidental that America’s twin behemoth tobacco companies, R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, moved into the food business — buying up or merging with snack companies including General Foods, Kraft and Nabisco in the 1980s — to diversify their portfolios as domestic tobacco sales came under mounting pressure.
The big players in the U.S. food industry have certainly acted like the tobacco pushers as they have deployed an incredible array of scientific and marketing research designed to get people to eat more, often at the obvious expense of their health. In his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, journalist Michael Moss offers a damning portrait of food companies that have entire research wings dedicated to creating the ideal “bliss point” so that brain receptors crave a food without ever triggering a sense of being satiated. More often than not, adding sweetness has been the easiest way to fool the brain, resulting in products like Yoplait yogurt, which tries to project a healthy image but, as Moss notes, has twice as much real sugar per serving as Lucky Charms cereal — the poster child for an unhealthy breakfast when I was growing up.
Taking another page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, whenever food companies and high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers talk about obesity, they rely heavily on language stressing “personal responsibility.” They argue that kids around the globe just aren’t exercising as much anymore and that consumers have every right to eat whatever they want to, using obvious truths to gloss over the fact that they are ruthlessly maximizing science and marketing to get people to embrace unhealthy lifestyles. As the Center for Consumer Freedom exclaims, “Eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of physical activity is crucial. Unfortunately, Americans have been force-fed a diet of bloated statistics hyping the problem of obesity.” (The executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom also happens to run a Beltway PR firm that specializes in defending corporate interests, and he has acknowledged that the center has received significant funding from food and restaurant companies.)
American consumers are wising up a bit — in 2009, Kellogg was forced to drop its claim that Frosted Mini-Wheats were “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 percent” after a public outcry — but the costs of global obesity are enormous and rising sharply. According to the WHO, many low- and middle-income countries are, ironically, facing the twin problems of obesity and undernutrition. More than 30 million overweight children now live in the developing world, and many of them — in a cruel trick of human biology — are more prone to obesity because they were undernourished in the womb and as infants. A 2012 study by University of Southern California and Oxford University researchers found that the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is 20 percent higher in countries with larger availability of high-fructose corn syrup than in countries where its use is comparatively low, and the study’s lead author, Michael Goran, argued that the sweetener “appears to pose a serious public health problem on a global scale.” Cardiovascular disease is already the No. 1 global killer, and the WHO notes that more than 80 percent of cardiovascular deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries because those countries are exposed to more risk factors, including unhealthy diet.
Samoan government officials have plans to implement a public-health campaign to talk people out of eating turkey tails, but the health minister will be competing with the marketing divisions of major American poultry companies. Mexico’s Education Ministry is trying to get schoolchildren to drink fewer soft drinks, but it is fighting an uphill battle against the marketing arms of major American cola companies that have spent years perfecting drinks that are cheap and designed to leave you wanting more. The African Union holds an Africa Food and Nutrition Security Day, but what is it to do when local McDonald’s franchises push kids to join the Happy Meal Club and receive “loads of great offers, promotions & competitions every month”?
The United States, meanwhile, seems to be doubling down on the export of fat and fructose. The farm bill that passed the House of Representatives in July not only stripped out food stamps but also made a number of key agricultural subsidies — including for corn, soybeans and peanuts — self-renewing in perpetuity. Legislation like this, mixed with relentless corporate marketing, means the rest of the world is likely to keep getting heavier — and it’s clear whose hand is feeding them.
John Norris is executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.