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New plans to fight obesity--restaurants tell consumers what's good for them.

The U.S. government and regulators are increasingly worried about people's weight gain. While increasing obesity rates have become worrisome, so have some of the proposed "solutions." Consumer Alert expressed its reservations about some of those proposals in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson sent on May 29, 2003. The letter was also signed by four other non-profit groups.

The letter referred to public comments by Secretary Thompson, which seem to suggest that the food industry--in particular, fast food--is the principal target of the agency's interest in combating obesity. In his remarks during media interviews he suggested that food companies and restaurants diversify their menus and encourage their customers to eat healthy foods and to exercise.

In the letter CA points out that most physicians, dietitians, nutritionists and other scientists agree that obesity is a highly complex problem arising from a multiplicity of contributing factors, such as genetic, socio-economic, medical, dietary, lifestyle-related, psychological, and others.

Another problem with the current approach on focusing on fast food as the culprit is that it overlooks the findings of many recent studies that show physical inactivity by consumers is also a major health risk. Overweight and inactive often go hand-in-hand, but the almost exclusive focus on weight loss in the media can be counterproductive.

CA is concerned that the sudden push to institute another "sin tax" is driven not as much by health concerns as by budget shortfalls in many states.

The suggestions that restaurants and food companies should encourage their customers to exercise more, is unpractical at least. Most customers will preserve their right to make their own decisions, and might consider it not only patronizing but rude if restaurants start preaching to their customers about weight loss and exercise.

Many restaurants already provide a wide variety of foods; even so-called fast-food restaurants have extended their choices to attract health conscious or vegetarian customers. In today's marketplace, consumers have a range of food choices and a range of prices for food.

Reaching out to consumers who seek help for weight problems is important. However, CA is concerned that good intentions to persuade people to do what is best for them is focusing on the easy targets--fast food companies--which may deflect attention from the complexity of the obesity problem, as well as encourage frivolous lawsuits and misguided tax proposals.
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Publication:Consumer Comments
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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