Food Fascists

By Jim McVeagh 04/01/2010


At first glance the proposal by the World Health organization to ban all junk food advertising to children seems a reasonable thing to do. After all, we know that the ban on advertising tobacco has been shown to decrease the prevalence of smoking significantly. It would seem logical that banning junk food ads aimed at children should equally decrease the amount of junk food consumed and have beneficial effects in reducing childhood obesity. Unfortunately, there is likely to be a flaw in the argument.

Tobacco advertising has never really been about selling the product (after all, inhaling smoke through a burning cylinder seems like a fairly stupid thing to want to do, no matter how you present it). Tobacco adverts have, almost uniformly, tried to sell lifestyle, rather than smoking per se. From the ruggedness of the Marlboro Man to the suaveness of James Bond, it is glamour that sells cigarettes. Even the adverts selling mild, lite and menthol brands depict scenes of jet-setting lifestyles and glamourous women.

Curiously, there has been research that indicates that most young people who start smoking now do so from peer pressure and the desire to “fit in”, even though there is still much subliminal advertising in both old and new movies and the retailers still retain their “wall of death” behind the counter of every corner dairy.

Be that as it may, the problem with junk food adverts is that they actually promote product, rather than lifestyle. They may be effective in getting a child to eat one type of appealing/appalling pile of carbohydrate over another, but they do not initiate the junk food desire. Junk food is popular for two reasons – it tastes good and it is convenient. The first is the reason why kids eat it and the second is the reason why parents provide it. This combination of appeal and convenience will not be overcome by banning advertising.

Frankly about the only thing that will overcome our fascination with junk food is the provision of something that is healthy, tasty and cheap. I’m not holding my breath.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the WHO desire to ban advertising is the use of the same argument used to ban tobacco advertising as if junk food and tobacco are the same. Yet the consumption of junk food is considerably less lethal than the consumption of tobacco at all levels. Comparing an occasional treat with an addiction to tobacco is somewhat over the top.

Inevitably, however, this kind of thinking will lead to junk food being treated in the same way as tobacco. We have already seen a move to force it out of school tuck shops. It is only a matter of time before such food is taxed. It is also easy to envisage hospitals and public facilities banning the consumption of junk food on the premises. It is possible that one day we may have to step outside to eat that packet of chips. It is not inconceivable that all junk food may be banned from supermarket displays and the shop assistant will have to go into the back to get your packet of chocolate fish, coming back to you with a disapproving look on their face and making snide remarks like “I suppose you want a plastic bag to carry that in, don’t you?”

It won’t be long after that before they start in on meat or cheese or potatoes or…

The Food Fascists will never be satisfied until we are all eating carrots and spinach with a smile on our face.

Fortunately, this will be over my dead body…

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