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Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen

Posted: July 8, 2010 01:56 PM

As American as Apple Pie: Policies that Protect Health

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Something transformative is happening in America. Federal recommendations limiting food marketing to kids. Building sidewalks so that kids can be physically active in their neighborhoods. Soda tax proposals popping up across the country. Policies in San Francisco promoting healthy beverages in vending machines. Government is putting policies into place that call for responsibility and establish accountability. These policies call for something radical—putting people before profit. They give families more options, more control, and greater decision making when it comes to health. Despite corporation-funded citizen groups who say this is taking away our rights, policies that protect our health are as American as apple pie.

We have a long, proud history of using policy to build health. Airbags in cars and policies regulating lead in paint are a given today, and they're built on the same principle of protection. When airbags and seat belts were first proposed the car companies fought them with all their might. Now in their advertising they highlight those hard-won safety features.

It would be absurd if we heard cigarette manufacturers making some of the arguments we're hearing today about health-protecting policies. "If people don't like smoking in airplanes, then they just shouldn't fly." "Restricting the amount of nicotine in cigarettes takes away people's choice." "It's not the smoking ads, or the cutesy characters, or the corporate sponsorship of community events—it's the parents' fault kids smoke."

When I introduced the first multi-county no-smoking ordinances in 1987, people told me I was crazy. "You can't tell people where and when to smoke," they said. Now we know that these kinds of no-smoking policies, along with policies that built from there—taxing cigarettes, limiting marketing and decreasing access—are exactly what made the biggest impact in reducing smoking. Those are policies that protect. And no brochure, or picture of smoke-damaged lungs even compares when it comes to impacting health.

When the Institute of Medicine recommended that the FDA limit salt in foods, the intent was to give consumers more control over their sodium intake. When virtually every processed food option has sky-high levels of sodium, you don't get to decide how much salt you put in your food—the manufacturer has made that choice for you: as Marion Nestle noted, "Consumers can always add salt to foods.  They cannot take it out." Now that companies including H.J. Heinz Co., Kraft Foods Inc. and Starbucks are voluntarily decreasing sodium in their products (which didn't happen until the threat of mandatory restrictions was real), consumers have greater freedom and control over how much salt they add to their food. That's a good thing. And it will have a real impact on our health and our economy, as we save money and lives by preventing sodium-related heart disease and stroke down the road.

Or take the restrictions on toys in fast food meals for kids in Santa Clara, California. Restaurants can still include the toy with the fast-food meal that offers apple sticks, low-fat milk and mac and cheese—just not with the meal that has burgers, fries and a soda. Which message—and which meal—would you want to come along with your kid's toy?

"Tell Albany to trim their budget fat and leave our groceries alone," a mom says in the industry-fueled ad campaign that many say tipped the balance against New York's soda tax bill. Since when is soda groceries? And when did we start allowing food companies to have power over what's on our table? When grocery store shelves are laden with salt- and sugar-packed products, or when a bottle of soda costs less than a bag of oranges, you can be pretty sure that we aren't getting to exercise our full range of choices. Policies can help right the balance, and pave the way for better health.

It took time for policies like tobacco, lead and airbags to be successful. Yet no one today says we should use cartoon characters in cigarette advertising to target kids, nor longs for the days when cars had no safety equipment and lead spewed from their tailpipes. And though people worried about businesses closing and jobs being lost in California when indoor smoking bans became law, it simply didn't happen. What did happen, and what is continuing to happen, is people—thousands of them—put down their packs of cigarettes, or better yet, didn't pick them up in the first place.

We didn't give up then, even in the face of some of the most well-funded, well-organized and well-connected opponents ever. And our lives are all the better, and the healthier, for it. Soda taxes aren't over—and neither are a host of other ordinances, policies and guidelines that put real options and decisions about health back in the hands of families across the country.

Oh, and that apple pie? I meant the homemade kind, with fresh apples from a local store you can walk to. That's American apple pie.

 
 
 

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