Each New Year, millions of Americans resolve to quit smoking, drink less alcohol and give up the high fat, sugar and salt diets that lead to expanding waistlines and higher risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sad to say, however, most resolvers fail to realize their goals. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, fewer than one in ten smokers wanting to quit in 2010 actually succeeded. For the 38 million adult Americans who report binge alcohol drinking, about 80 to 90% of those who try to stop can expect to relapse. About 45 million Americans go on a diet each year but 80% of dieters fail to lose weight and a third actually gain. Worse, almost 70% of US adults are now overweight or obese.
The cost of these failed New Year’s resolutions hurts not only the pride and well-being of those who try to make changes in their lifestyle. According to the World Health Organization, overconsumption of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food are main causes of the growing burden of premature deaths and preventable illnesses from chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke in the United States and around the world. So why is so hard for us to give up the products that lead to early death, pain, and rising costs?
One main reason is that the big alcohol, food, and tobacco corporations that profit from this hyperconsumption have created a world where the easy choice is one that brings them profits, not the one that keeps us healthy. They load their products with the nicotine, alcohol, sugar and fat that appeal to our vulnerabilities to addiction and our craving for release from stress and anxiety. They market their products relentlessly, using every technology at their disposal to get under our cognitive radar so they can manipulate our own and our children’s most primitive fears and hopes. In 2012, the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise mostly unhealthy products, often targeting children and young people. It significantly increased use of internet advertising, allowing advertisers to bypass parental controls of television advertising. Alcohol, food and tobacco companies make their products ubiquitous, cheaper and easier to find than healthier alternatives. To add insult to injury, these corporations and their trade associations use their political clout and campaign contributions to undermine public policies that protect health or make healthier choices more available. For example, when the Obama Administration suggested voluntary standards to restrict advertising unhealthy food to children, a Reuters investigation last year found that the big food companies spent more than $175 million over three years lobbying to defeat the proposal.
Given this corporate effort to promote consumption of products associated with the country’s most serious health problems, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us aren’t able to fulfill our New Year’s resolution to live healthier lives. So this year, let’s try some new resolutions:
1. Elect a Congress more willing to stand up to the tobacco, food, and alcohol industries. In the 2012 election, these three industries contributed more than $60 million to Congressional candidates in expectation of advancing their objectives of less regulation and lower taxes. In 2014, let’s resolve to support candidates who pledge to put protecting our health ahead of protecting corporate profit.
2. Encourage our cities and towns to use their zoning power to make unhealthy products less ubiquitous. Research shows that a lower density of alcohol outlets leads to less problem drinking, and fewer fast food outlets make it easier for people to choose healthier food. Zoning laws were created more than a century ago to protect against earlier threats to health, such as polluted air and water, inadequate sanitation, and unsafe housing. Let’s now update our zoning rules to safeguard our communities against the promotion of alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy food that cause today’s killer chronic diseases.
3. Encourage our mutual and pension funds, and our religious, hospital and university endowments, to stop investing in companies that profit from promoting diseases. Companies change their business practices when government regulation, consumer and investor pressure and market forces make it less profitable to stay the course than make changes. A few years ago CALPERS, the pension fund of California public employees, dropped all investments in tobacco. In 2014, let’s resolve to begin a grassroots campaign to reward companies that end health damaging practices, and take our business and investments away from those who don’t.
4. Support public health officials who seek to restore the visible hand of government to protect public health. Proponents of market-knows-best have raised the bogey man of the Nanny State to defeat efforts to restrict marketing of tobacco, alcohol, fast food and soda. But it’s Nanny Ronald McDonald, Nanny Marlboro and Nanny Budweiser that are trying to persuade our children and young people to consume sickening products. This year, let’s resolve to better protect our children from these bad nannies.
5. Require corporations to pay for the health consequences of what they sell. One important reason companies continue to profit from promoting unhealthy products is that they can avoid paying for the damage. Instead, they shift the costs for tobacco, alcohol and diet- related diseases to tax payers and consumers. By ending their ability to externalize these costs, new policies and laws could create incentives for companies to create healthier products.
As individuals, we have limited power to resist the pressure to consume the alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods that lead to early death and preventable illness. In 2014, let’s together resolve to create the environments and policies that make health the easy choice for all Americans.
Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York School of Public Health and author of Lethal but Legal Corporations, Consumption and Protecting Public Health (Oxford, Feb. 2014).