The economics of childhood obesity

Full disclosure.  I have no children of my own, but that does not preclude me from caring about the health and welfare of the children of America.  I therefore wish to discuss a specific permutation of the “consumer sovereignty” principle proposed by economists, as specific to a population of children.  I do acknowledge empirically that “consumer sovereignty” is markedly applicable, to varying degrees, in a discussion of adult populations, but the same concept is easily deconstructed as a myth in respect to children.  It presents as a truism that children, though possessed of unique and distinct personalities and proclivities, are nonetheless far more impressionable than adults.  Psychologists refer to this as “imprinting”, which occurs in the psyche of a child via numerous external influences, including of course advertising that is manipulatively directed at them specifically.  It strikes me as stunningly disturbing that legislative restrictions have to be imposed on monolithic processed food corporations (‘Big Food’) to prevent them from promoting the consumption of unhealthful obesogenic pseudo foods to a child population, when simple human decency and morality should be sufficient to discourage corporate entities from irresponsibly damaging the health of our children to garner profits, yet apparently we live in a society in which capitalist gains are prized above all other considerations.  A classic example of this egregious paradigm was well-illustrated by an interview I heard a few years ago on a podcast in which the inventor and co-founder of “SnackWells“, one of the unhealthiest snacks directed at children, openly admitted after having left the company that he does not allow his own kids to consume SnackWells products, simply because he is well-acquainted with the toxic list of ingredients.  Let us pause for a moment to let this sink in.  The guy said that he left the company because he could no longer live with himself, knowing what products like SnackWells, as well as candy and sodas, were doing to wreck the health of the first generation of children that are expected to live shorter lives than their parents!

Speaking anecdotally, a few weeks ago, I was in my car stuck at a long red light next to a school and observed children playing at a playground, most of whom were between 7-10 years of age.  At least half of them were obese.  I distinctly recall that, when I was their age, there was only the rare overweight child in my classes, and they were looked upon as a “freak” by other children, often cruelly treated.  But nowadays, overweight and obese children appear to be the norm.  Meanwhile, Big Food continues to aggressively market unhealthful “edible food-like substances” (as I like to call it) to our child population and our public schools continue to install vending machines loaded with this crap food in the hallways of said schools.  Where does all this end?  Certainly, it could be argued that the aforementioned societal burden falls first and foremost on the shoulders of parents, but it could also be argued that the parental task of getting children to consume healthful foods is made far more difficult by irresponsible food advertising, both on television and on the Internet, especially in a time when children are inundated non-stop by the “imprinting” I mentioned earlier in my post, not just during Saturday morning cartoons, as I vividly recall from my own childhood.

My final thought on this epic Greek tragedy is the long-held psychological theorem that once a child has been brainwashed by Big Food and fast food corporations throughout their childhood, by the time they are adults, the imprinting is in fact permanent and they will forever nostalgically associate edible food-like substances like Big Macs, Doritos and soft drinks as inextricably intertwined with their quality of life.  By that point, a consumer is indelibly robbed of their “consumer sovereignty”, while soulless processed food corporations laugh all the way to the bank.  My point in this diatribe is simply that no amount of government-subsidized “nutrition education” programs can reverse the insidious pervasive influence of corporate marketing, which has had decades to refine its subconscious brainwashing of consumers, especially young impressionable minds, through the power of manipulative marketing.  I would therefore posit that real change must be enacted within the microcosm of family and local community, because we certainly will never convince corporations to take a cut in profits, even for the sake of our children, our most precious resource.


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