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If you were born in the 1960s, really it’s amazing you are alive today at all. You grew up in an era of lethally dangerous cars and driving. For every mile driven in 1965, the odds of being killed were almost five times greater than today–even though modern cars are vastly more powerful and spend more time driving at highway speeds than did the cars of 40 years ago.
Facing the toll on the roadways, experts debated an array of solutions. Should cars be redesigned for greater safety? Or the roads? Should we try to alter driver behaviour? Or is the answer to be found in more rapid response to accidents and injuries?
In the end, we did a little of everything. We installed shoulder restraints and airbags in cars. Railroad crossings were reduced. Drunk driving was penalized more heavily. Highway departments got medevac helicopters. Result: not perfect success, but great improvement. 2008 was the safest year on record for driving in the United States, with fatalities dropping almost 10% below 2007 levels.
We should think the same way about the public health problems of overweight and obesity. There is no one single solution–and perfect health is not the policy target.
What we can do is implement individual ideas that will generate incremental progress. For example: Researchers at the University of California find that ninth-grade students are 5.2% more likely to become obese if there is a fast food restaurant located within a 10th of a mile of their school. Move the fast food restaurant even a quarter-mile away, however, and there is no effect on student weight. If this work is correct, it suggests a simple zoning ordinance can make a big difference: no fast food within a quarter-mile of a school building.
Or: Food servings have grown dramatically in recent years. The original Swanson’s TV dinner introduced in 1953 (turkey, gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes in case you were wondering) contained only 300 calories.
Food companies have increased portions because the small marginal cost of the additional calories can permit a hefty increase in price. The handful of extra potato in a supersized order of fries added more than a dollar to the price of a small package of McDonald’s French fries. That’s good business.
But the small package of fries contained a reasonable 250 calories, while the super-sized package contained over 600. The good news: In response to negative publicity, McDonald’s is eliminating super-sized fries from its menus in the United States. Greater public awareness can lead to changes in behaviour by responsible corporations.
Or: Only about 12% of American elementary school children participate in physical education daily. Once or twice per week is normal. Phys ed has been squeezed as schools try to make time for academic subjects.
Now we are learning that phys ed actually enhances academic performance, especially in girls. Elementary-age girls who spend at least 70 minutes per week in phys ed consistently do better on standardized reading and math tests than girls who spend less than 35 minutes. Girls who spend more time in gym do better still.
As schools absorb this data, the tendency to give short shrift to gym will yield to a new policy of reinventing phys ed to make it more appealing to girls–by, for example, shifting away from the traditional emphasis on competitive sport.
But here’s the one thing that won’t work: turning today’s obesity problem into a morality play in which evil corporations are depicted as exploiting hapless victims. The fabulous productivity of modern agriculture and industry have made food more available than ever before in the history of the world. Human beings, who evolved in conditions of food scarcity, are understandably finding it difficult to adapt to these new conditions of abundance. It will be the work of a generation, maybe two, to teach ourselves how to stay fit when we can no longer rely on our instinct to crave fats and sweets or to gorge when we can because tomorrow we may starve.
Instead of blame, we need to learn–just as we had to learn how to cope with motor cars, alcohol and tobacco, and all the other dangerous pleasures discovered by our inventive minds. With all those products the same intelligence that created the temptation eventually discovered a solution. So it will be with the temptations of overabundant calories as well.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.
In previous generations we had to devise solutions to deal with the dangers of tobacco and cars, and today we must learn how to combat the causes of obesity.
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