Advertising alone will not make obesity go away

Americans are becoming more and more obese. To find the proof, just visit your local mall. While the outfits are becoming tighter by the season, the customers have long been super-sized. Many are changing their diets in an attempt to shed some pounds.

But U.S. food and restaurant industries are now preemptively striking back. Afraid of losing revenues, an advertising campaign was launched this week that attempts to convince American consumers obesity is “over-hyped.” So no need to put down that cheeseburger.

According to Reuters, the ad campaign is costing around $600,000 and features full-page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune. Who is funding the campaign, though, is a fact that remains shrouded in mystery. All a spokesman for the campaign was prepared to tell Reuters was, “Obesity is certainly a genuine problem. But when genuine problems become political issues they tend to become exaggerated, as this has.” All questions concerning who is supplying the funds remained unanswered.

Such stubborn denial has not been seen since the tobacco industry denied its products were addictive or brought any health hazards with them.

Fittingly, one of the main claims the campaign set out to disprove is that obesity is overtaking smoking as the number one health risk in the United States.

Reuters reported the campaign’s main beef was with a study issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that claims smoking kills 435,000 Americans per year, while obesity kills close to 400,000. The campaign quickly seized on a National Center for Health Statistics report that was issued last week that claimed the numbers were 75 percent lower.

But no matter how one slices or dices the issue, obesity is an increasing problem. More importantly, it is a health problem that is easily avoidable. Many restaurants have begun to realize this and have started changing their menus, gradually phasing out the more health-offensive items.

Such changes were not necessarily triggered solely by good will of the restaurant owners. It is likely that the industry is more afraid of lawsuits, such as the one filed against McDonald’s that claimed the company had misled customers who then became obese. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the image damage for the world’s largest fast-food chain was considerable.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The individuals who live on a steady fast-food-based diet make the choice to do so. But restaurants will also have to play their part and change their menus to make better food choices possible. To combat the inevitable change by throwing money at the problem is not only shortsighted, it is also a strategy that will ultimately fail.