05/12/2014 12:31 EDT | Updated 07/12/2014 05:59 EDT

This Report on Obesity Has Good Points and Bad Conclusions

The Fraser Institute's report "Obesity in Canada: Overstated Problems, Misguided Policy Solutions" makes lots of good points. But its conclusions based on these good points demonstrate animosity to regulatory intervention that has any whiff of interference with its vision of market forces.

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The Fraser Institute is an organization that progressives love to hate. Its embrace of the market as the great provider and sorter of almost everything makes it an easy target for those of us who want government to deliver public goods and to ensure basic equality in this society. But even the misdirected sometimes get some things right. Such is the case with the Institute's recently released Obesity in Canada: Overstated Problems, Misguided Policy Solutions

The Report makes lots of good points. Here are four: First, it is right to call for everyone to take a breath about the "obesity crisis." There is evidence that the numbers of those who are obese are far from skyrocketing; in some instances they may be leveling off or even declining. Second, it points to the many weaknesses of using BMI (Body Mass Index) to assess the extent of and dangers for individuals being overweight. Third, it is correct to question the extent to which obesity is associated with health issues. There are genuine concerns but the some of the negative consequences have been overstated, add to the hype, and deflect attention from significant problems. Fourth, the report summarizes a considerable amount of evidence questioning the effectiveness of various regulatory interventions meant to combat obesity such as junk food taxes and mandatory caloric labelling.

But its conclusions based on these good points demonstrate animosity to regulatory intervention that has any whiff of interference with its vision of market forces. For example, it's one thing to produce evidence of the lack of effectiveness to date of some of these interventions. It's yet another to assert that essentially nothing else should be tried. Many reasonable people who have looked at these issues suggest that interventions' effectiveness will improve when more are tried and for a longer period. Effectiveness doesn't hinge on outcomes produced by any one regulatory strategy but in the combination of them acting together over a reasonable amount of time. Advocates point to the battle against smoking: effective but over decades and with a variety of legal interventions.

Then, too, many of us are questioning what effectiveness means in this context. The causes of obesity are many and complex (something that the report recognizes) and once individuals are obese it is very difficult for them to lose and sustain weight loss. There are possibilities of prevention of obesity in children but these issues need more research and assessment. However, none of this means that various interventions can't lead to improvements in health for almost anyone by promoting more nutritious diets and greater physical activity.

The report doesn't even consider such a possibility. Indeed, it ignores evidence in that regard related to an issue that it otherwise discusses in some detail. Quebec has essentially banned TV advertising to children for decades. Not surprisingly, given its ideological bent, the report gets pretty hot about such curbing of corporate marketing in that province. (The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the constitutionality of the legislation as a reasonable restraint on commercial speech. The Court's decision is not referenced by the Report.) It also quotes various officials indicating that the ban had no impact on the rates of obesity. That may be so.

However, a number of studies -- which the report ignores -- demonstrate that French speaking children in Quebec eat significantly less junk food. In contrast, English speaking children in that province consume more of this stuff than French speaking kids. They are exposed to advertising because they watch television from other provinces and from the U.S. Banning commercial advertising to kids maybe controversial to some but any discussion of these issues should take account of the various ways such legislation may be effective in promoting health.

Obesity in Canada is timely and provocative. It should be widely read. Its conclusions should be mostly rejected.


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