Warning labels can go too far

Gerry Phelan
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Who will they come for next? That’s the question that popped into my head when I heard about the latest attempt to combat the obesity epidemic.

Let me admit up front, I’ve struggled with weight issues all my life. I know what it is to be fat. I also know what it is like to lose weight and the ongoing battle to keep it off.  

Some of the ideas advocated by the Ontario Medical Association have me riled.

Ontario’s doctors have called for what they admit are aggressive measures to help prevent premature deaths associated with obesity.

They cite figures that one in three Canadian children is now overweight or obese, up from one in five in the early 1980s.

They say most overweight kids will remain so into adulthood, and that leads to health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.

The doctors point to American research that predicts obesity could cut short a person’s life by two to five years.   

I don’t dispute any of that and fully recognize the value of healthy living.  

Some of the doctor’s suggestions have merit. I’m OK, for example, with certain restrictions on the marketing of fatty and sugary foods to children.

I’m also fine with limiting their availability at sports and rec facilities frequented by young people.

It’s similar to setting guidelines for what can be offered in schools at lunchtime. Many now offer healthy alternatives, and much better menu choices than even a decade ago.

There’s nothing wrong with requiring chain restaurants and school cafeterias to list calorie contents adjacent to the items on menus.

Most of us enjoyed reading cereal boxes as kids. They were more about prizes and contests than calories and fat, but the education bit can go hand in hand, or side by side, with the other interesting stuff.    

All that is fine, but two suggestions from the Ontario docs irk me.

One is to increase taxes on junk food. Enough already. I don’t think food should ever be taxed. The two-litre soft drink may not be as good as milk, but it is one-third the price, and for some on low incomes is perhaps all they can afford.

There is a certain unfairness in the suggestion, but that’s a debate for another day.

Can you imagine buying a can of pop or a bag of chips and looking at a graphic warning label like we see on cigarette packs?

The Ontario Medical Association is recommending the placement of warning labels on soda and other high-calorie foods with little to no nutritional value.

The doctors rightly point out that tax incentives and graphic warnings have proven effective in the tobacco fight, but come on.

There’s a big difference in a teenager or an adult contemplating the dirty lungs warning on a pack of smokes, versus the six year old snacking on a slice of pizza staring at a package showing some gross, albeit realistic picture.

The Ontario Medical Association website has some examples: a fatty liver on a pizza box and a diseased foot on a soft drink can and grape juice container.

Eating is a lifestyle issue and if we want kids to eat better, the target audience has to be parents and caregivers.

I don’t think scaring Johnny and his friends at the pizza party is the place.

We’ve made smokers feel like lepers, and no I don’t smoke, but in most cases they are adults and old enough to make their own choices and decisions.

When I weighed over 300 pounds, I couldn’t be scared into losing the weight.

I had to be convinced about a change in lifestyle to help me shed the belly.

It was the persuasive words of a dietician who kept reminding me, “Everything in moderation.”

I don’t deny we have to deal with the problem of obesity, but whether it’s learning habits or bullying or yes, eating, it’s the parents’ and caregivers’ place to give direction.

Educate the adults in the workplace and, yes, even in the restaurants, but let kids be kids.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.

He can be reached at gerryp@bellaliant.net

Organizations: Ontario Medical Association

Geographic location: Ontario

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Recent comments

  • saelcove
    November 16, 2012 - 13:55

    Just another example of minority controlling the majority

    November 16, 2012 - 13:46

    It's disappointing that someone of Gerry Phalen's intelligence and experience would take such a short-sighted reactionary stance on something so pivotal, not only to the health of new generations of Canadians, but to our ability to rein in public health care costs that are skyrocketing out of control. You accept the role that punitive taxes and graphic warnings have played in combating tobacco induced cancers, but you have a problem accepting that we are today with dietary related diseases where were with smoking back in the sixties and seventies. As was the case with tobacco, public education alone has not been able to bring about a necessary, fundamental change in consumer behaviour. Nor are consumers solely responsible for their near addiction to foodstuffs that have been scientifically linked to a multitude of diseases. The absence of regulations governing potentially harmful substances, including sodium chloride, caffeine, hydrogenated oils and fructose-glucose, has triggered a race to the bottom among food manufacturers. (Witness the newfound concern, for example, that caffeine laden energy drinks might be killing children.) Gerry says "I don't think food should ever be taxed". Maybe, but consider the definition of 'food'. It is 'any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth'. Therein lies a major flaw in Gerry's argument. Junk foods might be edible but they are hardly nutritious and they would certainly not sustain life or growth for very long. Most of us, like Gerry, are resentful of any attempt by government to limit our freedoms. And that's fine, but these progressive doctors in Ontario - like the mayor of New York - are not trying to outlaw your favourite foods. They simply want to make sure that you know what this junk is doing to you and that, by paying a premium to purchase it, you are helping to defray at least a small part of the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with the disease conditions tied to its consumption. Its O.K. to 'let kids be kids' but, left to their own devices, there are a great many activities in which kids might engage that are seriously detrimental to their health. You need to adopt a broader, less defensive outlook on what is good for you, your children and the community at large.

  • Anon
    November 16, 2012 - 10:43

    Well joe, maybe if we subsidized things like milk, eggs, bread, vegetables and fruit we wouldn't need to raise taxes on junk food to pay for the obesity burden.

  • Joe
    November 16, 2012 - 08:12

    Tax the sh1t out of it just like we do with booze and smokes. Because down the road it's the taxpayers that going to have to pay to keep these consumers alive, all because of the crap they want to put into their bodies.