Ignore Evidence. Deny Science. Minimize Problems. Then Cry ‘Freedom!’ (and Invoke the Nanny State)
These are, to the best of our reckoning, the four stages of corporate response when the public and political leaders start demanding restrictions on products that make us sick or do us harm. And, of course, if political leaders do try and act, company executives and PR people lob inflammatory phrases like “nanny state” to rile people up. First they ignore. Next they deny and bury. Then they minimize. Finally, they shout about freedom—and how politicians are taking it away.
That’s what Karen Harned of the National Federation of Independent Business did recently on this website when she derided Mayor Michael Bloomberg for working to “expand the nanny state that has become New York City.” Bloomberg stands accused because he is attempting to limit the size of sodas—after previously oppressing New York residents by restricting public smoking and regulating sodium and trans fats in food.
Pity the poor food conglomerate, whose God-given right to expose its customers to carcinogens and artery-clogging trans fats has been so savagely attacked! Next, Harned actually suggests, Girl Scouts may be forced to sell apples instead of cookies and employees may be required to use stairs instead of elevators.
These kinds of absurd arguments aren’t new. Take a moment to snicker at this column from 1988, which makes the case that freedom died in America when the Reagan administration prohibited smoking on domestic flights of less than two hours. Despite the fact that such an idea is laughable 25 years later, the similarities to Harned’s column are striking. It’s all there: the allusions to totalitarian government, the invocation of the slippery slope that will lead to our loss of freedom, and, of course, the complete lack of evidence.
But here’s the interesting thing. The stated arguments used to oppose regulations that would protect the public’s health are usually about consumer freedom. But the real drivers of the anti-regulatory agenda are almost always the very industries that want to keep selling harmful products with unfettered ease.
When Congress asked the Interagency Working Group, a group of federal health agencies and regulators, to develop standards for the marketing of food products to children, they did just that. The IWG’s initial guidelines, released in 2011, said that any food promoted to children must have ingredients like real fruit, vegetables, whole grains, extra-lean meat or eggs, low-fat dairy, etc., making up at least 50 percent of its weight.
In other words, food marketed to children should have, well, actual food. Seems like a good idea, right? Not to General Mills GIS -0.72%, maker of Lucky Charms, Trix and Count Chocula cereals. The company submitted a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, the lead federal agency developing the guidelines, noting that “of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages in America, 88 would fail the IWG’s proposed standards.” That’s a pretty telling statement about the reality of American processed food.
For good measure, the General Mills letter also invoked the specter of government coercion, arguing that the proposed standard “restricts free expression in violation of the First Amendment.” And sure enough, pressure from General Mills and other big food companies forced the IWG to withdraw the guidelines, even though they were only proposed as voluntary measures.
Businesses shouldn’t have carte blanche to sell products known to make people sick, yet there is compelling and overwhelming evidence that soda is uniquely harmful. Research presented to a conference of the American Heart Association in March linked soda consumption to about 180,000 deaths a year from diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. So far, help isn’t coming from the federal level, sticking communities with the responsibility to develop, pilot and defend consumer protections, just as we did with cigarettes, seatbelts, and lead in paint. It may make Harned’s blood boil, but communities can and should create laws to protect themselves against the excesses of industries more concerned with profits than the health of their customers.
While Harned wraps super-sized sodas in the flag and issues dire warnings about the “nanny state,” families are worried about something else: how to keep their children from becoming part of the first generation in history that may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.