COLUMN: Perry Bergson — May 5, 2014

Perry
Perry Bergson
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The Fraser Institute is one of those squeaky wheel organizations that probably receives more attention than they deserve.

I agree with them sometimes and I don’t agree with them on other occasions. I can probably say that about most people I know too.

But when the Fraser Institute lays an egg, they like to do it in spectacular fashion.

That’s how my week began last Monday. As I was getting dressed, I checked my phone and saw that the Fraser Institute was questioning the very concept of an obesity epidemic.

I clicked off my phone and decided to read the rest of their news release later. I don’t like to start my week with too much ideological wackiness.

When I got in to work, things quickly got busy and I put the press release out of my mind.

But within a few hours, the Canadian Public Health Association came back with a press release dissecting what the Fraser Institute had claimed.

Here is the Fraser Institute’s argument.

They say that body mass index has stabilized between 2005-12 so the problem isn’t getting worse. They also say that a number of factors influence obesity, a point that I readily agree with.

Here’s a quote from a release they sent out last Monday, with a quote from their researcher Nadeem Esmail, the Fraser Institute’s director of health policy studies and author of Obesity in Canada: Overstated Problems, Misguided Policy Solutions.

 

Most government attempts to tackle obesity and overweightness include a familiar menu of policy proposals aimed at private businesses and individuals, which include tax hikes on sugary and fatty foods, food bans, vending machine bans, and menu and food labelling initiatives.

However, these policies often ignore the many complex causes of obesity or overweightness, which include physiological, psychological and socioeconomic factors such as culture, family life and structure, genetics and income. They also impose costs on all Canadians, regardless of individual lifestyle choices, and crucially, disregard the cost to taxpayers, private business and the economy overall.

For example, many of these policies require new or larger government bureaucracies (an agency to determine which foods and beverages should be taxed or banned, for example), stunt small business growth and generate higher business costs, which are likely to be passed on to consumers.

“Government interventions impose costs indiscriminately, inappropriately vilifying particular foods, food manufacturers and distributors. If the interventions fail to shrink waistlines across Canada, we’ll likely see advocates arguing that the policies weren’t strong or intrusive enough. But in reality, governments have little ability to change the behaviours that lead to overweightness and obesity, and the case for government intervention is neither as strong nor as clear as advocates claim,” Esmail said.

There are times I don’t agree with their stand but at least I can understand the nuance to their argument.

Not this time.

This comes off as an anti-government screed, not as a criticism in the nanny state school of thought. The core of their argument is that since government may not be able to help everyone, it shouldn’t even try.

People didn’t like when they were told that they couldn’t smoke in public places either. We all know how that turned out, with the campaign against tobacco spurring a drop to 16 per cent of adults now smoking from the high point in the mid-’60s at nearly 50 per cent.

The Fraser Institute release spurred the Dietitians of Canada and Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) to weigh in on the topic.

They are on the frontlines of the problem so let’s hear what they had to say.

 

Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Public Health Association are disturbed by the conclusions and recommendations outlined in the Fraser Institute report released April 28, 2014. The report’s interpretation of health and economic data could lead to confusion among both policy-makers and the public.

“It’s potentially misleading to suggest that the current situation is Canada lacks a disconcerting trend or is exaggerated. Rates of obesity in Canada increased dramatically in the two decades before the time period examined in this report. Comparison of measured data in 1978/79 versus 2004 showed that rates of obesity in Canada had tripled among adolescents and nearly doubled among adults. So a slowing down in this rate of increase is hopeful, but not a sign that there is no longer a problem,” says Maria Ricupero, Registered Dietitian and Spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. “It is critical to continue work to prevent the development of expensive, high-risk health complications resulting from obesity. Chronic diseases associated with obesity can lead to lower productivity and negatively impact quality of life.”

“There have been many public health efforts over the past decade to prevent childhood obesity, and we have seen positive impacts, but this does not mean it is time to pull back,” explains Kim Raine, Registered Dietitian, and Professor at the School of Public Health at University of Alberta. “Prevention is a long-term investment, requiring support from government and the private sector – increases in calorie intakes happened over a time period of some 25 years. Collectively, we need time to evaluate the impact of programs and policies over the long term, to stop further increases in obesity rates and to address this concerning problem in Canada.”

 

We all know that the ultimate key to weight loss is burning more calories than you cram into your cake hole.

But as our society grows increasingly computer-centric and people spend less time doing physical activities, the battle against readily available food packed with salt and calories becomes more lopsided.

The results are fairly plain to see around us.

There is little that the government has done in recent decades on this matter that threatens the existence of business. If posting the calorie count of your food is a gross intrusion on your ability to do business, you might want to reconsider your business plan.

The Fraser Institute stance reflects a more American sense that everybody should be free to so whatever they want, regardless of the consequences. The battle for the all-mighty dollar should have no bounds.

The dieticians and health-care professionals suggest that people sometimes need a little help to make good decisions.

You probably knew where you stood on this issue two paragraphs in. I’m not going to change your mind because the opposing sides of this issue reflect a pair of very different world views.

I’m comfortable where I sit.

 

 

Perry Bergson is the Daily Herald’s managing editor. You can reach him at 765-1302 or by email at perry.bergson@paherald.sk.ca

Organizations: Fraser Institute, Canada and Canadian Public Health Association, School of Public Health University of Alberta Daily Herald

Geographic location: Canada

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