Editorial: Disney, Bloomberg are ahead of the times on era’s health issue

If you’ve been reading the news this week, you’d know the connection between the Walt Disney Company recent action and one proposed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The former will banish junk-food advertising from its television shows for kids, and the latter is considering a plan to ban oversized sugary drinks. Both are addressing the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the nation.
And with good cause.
Of all countries, the United States has the highest rate of obesity and the trend is getting worse, not better. Estimates of obesity have steadily increased, from 19.4 percent in 1997, 24.5 percent in 2004, to 26.6 percent in 2007, to a whopping 33.8 percent for adults and 17 percent for children in 2008. In 2010, the numbers were even higher for adults, 35.7 percent.
What’s interesting about this latest battleground in the war against obesity is that it is moving into a very public sphere. Bloomberg is addressing the issue the same way New York and many other cities across the nation do with smoking cigarettes: they ban them in certain arenas. While its ban on junk food advertising won’t become effective until 2015, when current advertising contracts expire and to allow advertisers a chance to adjust their product lines and marketing, Disney is looking at the issue in an even more interesting context: it’s good business.
Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chairman, told reporters at the New York Timeshe felt strongly that “companies in a position to help with solutions to childhood obesity should do just that,” but added: “This is not altruistic. This is about smart business.”
Taking steps to combat childhood obesity allows Disney the opportunity to polish its brand as one families can trust, wrote the Times, (a brand) “that drives sales of everything from Pixar DVDs to baby clothes to theme park vacations. In addition, Disney has carefully studied the marketplace and executives say they believe there is increasing consumer demand for more nutritious food.”
As for Bloomberg’s plan, it would place a cap on 16-oz servings of bottled drinks and fountain beverages sold at city restaurants, sport venues, movie theaters and street carts and applies to drinks which have more than 25 calories per 8 ounces. (It doesn’t apply to juices or beverages with more than 50 percent milk or milk substitutes — so milk shakes are cool.)
Bloomberg’s plan, in particular, has been criticized by effected corporations. “New Yorkers deserve better than this,” read a missive from Coca Cola. “They can make their own choices.”
“Public health issues cannot be effectively addressed through a narrowly focused and misguided ban,” wrote McDonalds.
But do consumers choose wisely, and have imposed bans not significantly altered the culture around smoking? Today, smoking is not allowed in most restaurants or work places; ads for tobacco products are severely limited and packaging has to display warning signs that tell the user what has been scientifically proven: cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer, and will likely kill you. Today, that message is a given; thirty years ago, it wasn’t.
Imagine, then, a time when McDonalds must post calorie and fat content information about its hamburgers, French fries and oversized drinks; imagine a time when office vending machines stock only healthy drinks and snacks, instead of soda and candy; and reflect on the current trend in school lunch programs in which the choices are getting healthier year-by-year.
The message is simple: obesity kills, so eat better food.
Ironically, while the public has accepted government’s role in limiting tobacco use, it may not be ready for government intervention on how they eat. But when Disney limits the type of advertising it allows on its television programs, web sites and radio stations geared toward kids that’s a powerful way to get the attention of junk food purveyors.
“With this new initiative, Disney is doing what no major media company has ever done before in the U.S. — and what I hope every company will do going forward,” said First-Lady Michelle Obama, in calling Disney’s step a “game changer” in the fight against obesity.
Not only is Disney’s message one that helps makes our children healthier and happier, fighting obesity is also an important battle in the nation’s fight to reduce the high cost of health care. The direct medical cost of obesity has been estimated to be well over $100 billion annually as of the year 2003, and growing rapidly. And the U.S. Center for Disease Control is cautioning that the epidemic may well be more deadly on a per capital basis than cigarette smoking was in its hey-day.
Bloomberg and Disney are simply a few years ahead of their time. A decade from now, junk food will be seen as the cigarettes of this era and we’ll look back in wonder that we could have allowed such a deadly influence to become so ingrained in our culture. That can’t happen soon enough.

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