What if candy stores were closed on Sundays? What if you needed a license to open a doughnut shop?
As America’s weight problem gets bigger, some health researchers say instead of relying on individual willpower alone, it may be time for some new community-level policies.
Deborah Cohen, a physician and public health researcher with the RAND Corporation, suggests that some of the policies we use to control alcohol consumption could help beat back obesity.
“People realized this a couple hundred years ago, that alcohol was a problem,” Cohen said. “So they developed all kinds of regulations to make it less convenient and reduce the odds that people will drink all the time and get drunk.”
Perhaps now it’s time to rein in our easy access to food, Cohen said.
“Choices and decision making are influenced by the context,” she said. “It’s the environment that really determines our behavior and we just don’t appreciate that enough.”
Shaping the environment to discourage overeating could include warning labels for foods high in fat and sugar, or maybe restrictions on where in the grocery store foods are displayed to curb impulse buying.
There could be unintended consequences, warns Jeff Stier, an analyst with the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Ushering in another Prohibition?
“I don’t want to sound extreme, but these are Prohibition-style interventions. I mean do we really need to create a black market for burgers and fries?” Stier said.
“I think we need to teach young people how to enjoy fun foods responsibly, not to teach people that fun foods are bad,” Stier said.
Cohen said education is not enough.
“What we underestimate is the power of food, of it being there and easily accessible to trigger our desires and cravings,” she said.
Stier acknowledges the obesity problem but says some people are crying “obesity emergency” to justify the roll-out of untested laws and taxes.
He reviewed Cohen’s analysis, which appears in the journal Preventing Chronic Diseases.
“I think we have to be clear this was not a scientific study, this was kind of a mind exercise, and in her mind these types of interventions would be a good idea,” Stier said.
When asked the effectiveness of the control policies to fight obesity, Cohen said, “We have to start trying them and see if they work or not.”
Cohen said one of the most promising ideas is to standardize serving sizes so consumers can better gauge the calories they are consuming.
For example, Cohen says she likes New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of large-sized sugary drinks. About 60 percent of that city’s residents oppose the plan, according to a New York Times poll released this week.