Baldwin-Faced Lies —
Last week, Michael Bloomberg announced a proposed ban on large sugared drinks:
The proposed ban would affect virtually the entire menu of popular sugary drinks found in delis, fast-food franchises and even sports arenas, from energy drinks to pre-sweetened iced teas. The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces — about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle — would be prohibited under the first-in-the-nation plan, which could take effect as soon as next March.
The measure would not apply to diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy-based drinks like milkshakes, or alcoholic beverages; it would not extend to beverages sold in grocery stores or convenience stores.
I considered writing a post about it, but it seemed pointless. First off, you’ve got The Daily Show mocking Bloomberg for such a pointless attempt to restrict caloric consumption in city known for a pastrami “sandwich” with a tower of beef. But, more importantly, the only people I’ve seen defending the ban are predictably obtuse. The best you can say is that Bloomberg’s whose heart is in the right place, but his logic circuits are fried.
Anyone with a shred of common sense can see multiple problems with this kind of law.
Anyone, that is, except for Alec Baldwin.
Last week, Mr. Baldwin wrote an impassioned defense of Boomberg’s ban, which begins:
I think Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right. At least in spirit. The need to understand and then decisively act upon the latest findings regarding sugar consumption, diabetes, overall nutritional guidelines and policies, and the public health crisis created by the U.S. obesity epidemic is urgent. This is true for both children and adults. [Note: You know it's gonna be good when it's for the children.]
Baldwin puts the panic pedal to the metal throughout the piece until the end, when he reaches a fever pitch:
Many of those who cry loudest about measures like the one Bloomberg has proposed are probably sick, too: hooked on high fat, high sodium and high sugar diets who don’t want their “drug” taken away. Are there people who consume these products responsibly? Of course. But that isn’t the point. At least not anymore. Americans are obese, and in some areas of high concentration, morbidly obese, in numbers that are sapping the treasuries of the fifty states, undercutting U.S. competitiveness, and leaving this country vulnerable to a set of long-term health crises that we will struggle to overcome, if ever. All the while, millions will die, unnecessarily, simply because they fell victim to the marketing of unhealthy dietary choices.
Whew! Ease up, Alec. Stress is a killer too, and I’m concerned for your health..
I mean, I understand why he’s in a panic. In his piece, he repeatedly implores readers to watch Weight of the Nation (WotN), and at the end of the documentary, viewers are conscripted into the American Anti-Obesity Corps (AAOC), a sort of Civilian Public Service formed during the Great Obesity War of 2004.
As a certified AAOC Fatty Spotter, WotN viewers are required to diagnose and inform Unhealthy Americans (UAs) of health issues (i.e., obesity, diabetes, morbid obesity, heart disease, severe obesity, hypertension, mega-obesity, hyperlipidemia, über-obesity, poor hygiene, mondo-obesity, and inappropriate wardrobe).
Fatty Spotters are then encouraged prescribe an appropriate treatment (i.e., eat less, move more, ad infinitum) and the UA is sent on his or her way, saved by the wisdom and tenacity of these wise and brave citizens.
Getting Alec Baldwin as celebrity spokesman for the AAOC was quite a coup. The fact that Mr. Baldwin has also volunteered as a Fatty Spotter is brilliant.
I misjudged you, Mr. Baldwin. At first I thought you were just taking an oversimplified, hyperbolic stance on an incredibly complicated subject that you don’t understand except through the lens of a misleading, slickly-produced “documentary” funded by the very organizations that have, in the past, presented misleading, hyperbolic rhetoric (which has since been thoroughly discredited) without the aid of a four-part HBO documentary.
In my opinion, the most revealing fact about WotN is that the CDC and NIH (in collaboration with HBO, the Institutes of Medicine, Kaiser Permanente, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation) decided that in order to drive their health message home, they didn’t want to enlist them help of an acclaimed health or science documentarian.
After all, it’s oh-so-predictable to choose a director with a proven history of whittling down hundreds of hours of footage into a coherent and accurate health message. Sure, an experienced science documentary director might accurately represent the intricate socio-political and personal causes for the modest rise, and current decade-long stability, of obesity rates, but what’s the fun in that?
No, this auspicious collection of public health organizations took the bold move of bringing in Dan Chaykin, a director whose only previous work had been adult entertainment, including Porn 101, Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley, Katie Morgan’s Sex Quiz, Katie Morgan’s Sex Tips: Questions, Anyone?, Katie Morgan’s Sex Tips 2: Any More Questions?, Katie Morgan on Sex Toys, Katie on Demand, Katie Morgan: A Porn Star Revealed.
After discovering this fact, I suddenly realized what I had been watching for all those 278 minutes: fat panic porn, pure and simple.
But before I respond to Mr. Baldwin directly, it is necessary to lay down some background info for our readers, and Mr. Baldwin, if he happens to read this.
The fact is, Bloomberg’s New York City has been a leader in anti-obesity social engineering experiments.
In January 2008, the New York City Board of Health voted unanimously to include calories on fast food menus, making the Big Apple the first city to enact such a law. President Obama followed suit when he signed the Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, making menu labeling national law.
But has menu labeling done what proponents claimed it would do? Dr. Thomas Frieden, who is Director of the CDC and plays a prominent role in WotN, established the justification, and theoretical outcomes, for New York’s proposed law in an October 2007 New York Times article:
“The big picture is that New Yorkers don’t have access to calorie information,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner. “They overwhelmingly want it. Not everyone will use it, but many people will, and when they use it, it changes what they order, and that should reduce obesity and, with it, diabetes.”
People overwhelmingly want it, many people will use it, it will change what they order, and reduce obesity and diabetes.
Wow. That’s a tall order, and an easy sell, Dr. Frieden. Clearly this law must be passed to stop the scourge of obesity.
But how did those predictions pan out?
Well, in July 2011, the British Journal of Medicine published the results of the New York Board of Health’s research from two surveys taken in Spring 2007 and Spring 2009, before and after the introduction of menu labeling. The survey included both survey questions and a caloric tally based on the subject’s receipt.
Of the approximately 8,500 customers who provided receipts, just 1,300 used the newly issued calorie postings, which means that just 1 in 6 customers, or 15% of the population, actually used the menus. Although there was not a statistically significant decrease in the amount of calories purchased between 2007 and 2009, the average caloric level of the meals went up in two years from 828 calories to 846 calories. An increase in calories purchased was found in both men and women, as well as people of all economic levels. Oddly enough, out of the 11 restaurants included in the results, 7 had a decrease in calories purchased.
One positive talking point to come out of the research was that that 15% who used the menu labeling had an average 100 calorie decrease. But those people who were predisposed to using the menu labels are already more likely to eat fewer calories, since they are obviously counting calories. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the difference was between 863 calories for the 85% who ignored the calorie label and 757 calories for those who did, a difference of 106 calories.
To put that in perspective, a double cheeseburger, small fry and small sweet tea has 820 calories, while the same meal with a kid-sized fry has 690 calories, a difference of 130 calories. A comparable 100 calorie difference can be made found between each of the different french fry sizes McDonalds offers.**
Congratulations, Mayor Bloomberg, Dr. Frieden, and the New York City Board of Health, you got 15% of people to buy a medium fry instead of a large. Health crisis averted!
Does this sound like “many people” were using the menu labels? Is this the “changes” in what people order?
As if that weren’t sad enough, a review of New York’s obesity and diabetes rates demonstrate the foolishness of Dr. Frieden’s health claims. When you compare the 2011 “F as in Fat” report (PDF) by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (which I analyzed here) to the 2008 report (PDF), the results aren’t that impressive. In 2008, New York’s adult obesity rates were estimated at 23.5%. By 2011, they were up to 24.7%. Diabetes rates showed similar trends, going from 8.0% to 8.7%. Childhood obesity rates jumped from 15.3% to 17.1%.
Great call, Friedan!
But rather than admit defeat, we’re led to believe that with each anti-obesity law enacted, the combined impact will add up to significant caloric reduction and, ipso facto, a significant loss of weight. This is part of the justification for Bloomberg’s latest law, the 16 ounce soda limit, which will theoretically cause people to think twice before getting a refill and doubling their caloric intake.
It’s a nice theory, but unlikely to result in behavior changes much different than those seen with menu labeling.
To be clear, I’m not against menu labeling. I believe more information is usually better. What I’m against is people using the Great Fat Panic as justification for forcing that information onto private companies. You want restaurants to provide calorie counts because you, the consumer, want that information available? Great, although I think it’s ridiculous to force restaurants to do so because you’re too lazy to plan your meals. But if you want restaurants to provide calorie counts because you think it will make people change their ordering behavior, then I think you’re a fool because it’s not gonna happen.
The Super Gulp ban is something else entirely, though. While menu labeling hopes that by sharing information it might persuade you to order healthier items, the Big Gulp ban actually intervening and prevents you from choosing an item that has been deemed “unhealthy.”
This leap from encouraging healthy choices to preventing unhealthy choices crosses a libertarian line in my staunchly Democratic mind, which believes that people have the right to be as self-destructive as they choose. And until Mayor Bloomberg proposes a ban on the 32 ounce beers at Yankee Stadium, or stops attending Donut Day events (the day after announcing the Big Gulp ban, mind you), then I see this proposal as nothing more than a cheap stunt to claim he’s “doing something” about obesity.
So it seems appropriate to use Mr. Baldwin’s defense of the soda ban to explain exactly why these kinds of meaningless attempts are not only pointless, but counterproductive as well.
And I’m going to do that from within the logic of Mr. Baldwin’s post. As a critic of the soda ban, I am obviously sick from being hooked on my high fat, high sodium and high sugar diet. Therefore, that is how I will response to Mr. Baldwin.
My comments are in bold green.
Why Bloomberg Is a Right Fool
I think Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right. At least in spirit. Which makes sense, as the Big Gulp ban has been proposed as the Fifth Spiritual Law. The need to understand and then decisively act upon the latest findings regarding sugar consumption, diabetes, overall nutritional guidelines and policies, and the public health crisis created by the U.S. obesity epidemic is urgent. So we don’t have time for evidence or research or common sense. Just go, baby go! This is true for both children and adults. And animals and homunculi.
At first, my response to Bloomberg’s critics was more visceral. Note: The second definition of visceral is “not intellectual.” Some libertarian types don’t mind government intervention in the matrimonial decisions of gay men and women. But totally support donut-fucking. They look the other way at wars fought in our name in places they can’t find on a map. But know every Krispy Kreme location within a 500 mile radius. They want courts to get involved when they want to tear down the wall between Church and State. Got that straw man all set up, Alec? Good. So, critics of the ban are homophobic, war-loving, geography-hating Fundamentalists, right?
However, the public outcry over previous attempts to stop food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase soda and “sports drinks” and Bloomberg’s current proposal are indicative of how deep the problem runs in America. It’s so deep that people who aren’t poor have defended the autonomy of people who are poor. It’s madness I tell you. MADNESS!
Food is a drug. A delicious, delicious drug. At least in the way it is marketed today, which is significantly different from when I grew up. Nobody is arguing that food (and every other product out there) is marketed more aggressively today than when Alec Baldwin, born in 1958, grew up. But if he’s seen the awesome food history show Supersizers Go (analyzed here) he would know that the post-war generation welcomed convenience foods overwhelmingly. So, when Baldwin was a child, some curmudgeonly silent film star was probably lecturing Alec’s generation about how different things were when he was a kid. As a child, sweets were referred to as “treats,” and were dispensed far more judiciously than they are today. By “judiciously,” Alec means that he had to present his case to a three-judge panel before being allowed access to the cookie jar. The proliferation of fast food restaurants that serve high fat, high sugar meals, as well as places like Dunkin Donuts, which are simply sugar dispensaries, has evolved as well. Boy howdy, have they ever. In fact, like Mayor Bloomberg, Dunkin Donuts celebrated Donut Day as well, giving out a free “taste” of their product. But unlike the corner dope pusher, Dunkin Donuts was allowed to ring the NASDAQ bell in celebration.
A quarter-pound hamburger with cheese, fries and a Coke was what you had after playing in a football game. And typically once a week. And by God, he walked to school every day, uphill both ways in the snow, naked and barefoot. Gatorade, the granddaddy of sports drinks, was gulped on the gridiron or diamond or basketball court during a game. Gatorade began marketing its product nationally in the fall of 1967, but Alec manages to compare the ubiquitous nature of sports drinks today with a newly-introduced product in 1967. Nice. You didn’t eat those meals or drink those beverages everyday. No, instead, your generation drank full fat milk and ate more red meat, consuming an average of 139 grams of fat per day (PDF), compared with 109 grams in 1995. According to that same USDA report, caloric consumption has remained comparable to 1965 levels.
Like so many Fat Panickers, Mr. Baldwin suffers from Childhood Diet Romanticism, which is the tendency to believe that the diet of their youth was better in all nutritional respects, and that the current obesity rates are due to swarms of fatties gobbling fast food 24×7. This is a childish view of an issue with myriad contributions that WotN touched on, but ultimately sought to blame on modern gluttony and sloth. As a small example of what Baldwin and WotN completely ignore, it is a fact that during the period when obesity rates rose, so did the numbers of dieters and the population using anti-depressants, both being linked inextricably to long-term weight gain.
I recently lost over 30 pounds by giving up the lion’s share of refined sugar in my diet and reducing my intake of pasta, rice and bread. Reducing carbs may lead to weight loss, but the long-term efficacy is pathetic, as evidenced by one of the only two-year studies of the low-carb diet, compared to multiple weight loss programs. So, saying that you’ve “recently” lost 30 pounds is like saying that you recently stopped breathing. Sooner or later, you’ve gotta exhale. I switched to almond milk and have reduced my dairy consumption significantly. <sarcasm>Yes, because, as we all know, milk consumption has risen dramatically with obesity rates </sarcasm>
I watched the HBO documentary The Weight of a Nation and many of the overweight people interviewed there spoke of being not only demoralized, but confused by a chronic weight gain that they struggled with and were ultimately powerless to overcome. I can relate. Yes, a multi-million dollar celebrity with a modest amount of body fat can totally sympathize with the people interviewed in WotN, most of whom appeared to have a BMI of over 50, which includes just 0.42% of the population.
I exercised constantly yet watched my weight climb until I was certain something was wrong with me. In May of 2011, that fear was confirmed. I was told I was pre-diabetic and needed to aggressively rethink and regulate my diet. Gone were the days when I could eat a peanut butter cookie the size of a hubcap with my 5pm coffee as a “snack.” With age, my body had changed. My health had changed. My ability to process significant amounts of sugar was gone. I was sick. And I wanted to get well.
Let’s just stop right here for a minute and acknowledge that if you have high blood sugar and you have signs of insulin resistance, reducing the amount of carbs you eat and getting more exercise is the best way we know how to get those numbers under control without medication. However, the fact that this may lead to weight loss is circumstantial, at best, when research confirms again and again and again that exercise “regardless of weight loss” has an incredibly positive impact on the disease. So, eat healthy and exercise to treat insulin resistance, but stop thinking that the side effect, weight loss, is responsible for the health improvements.
Many of those who cry loudest about measures like the one Bloomberg has proposed are probably sick, too: hooked on high fat, high sodium and high sugar diets who don’t want their “drug” taken away. Huh? [Puts down fists full of Twinkies] Are there people who consume these products responsibly? Of course. Ooooh, let’s go down this logic trail… okay, so we know that there are people who consume 32-ounce sodas responsibly. Go on… But that isn’t the point. Of course not. At least not anymore. Now that the fatties fucked it up for everyone. Americans are obese, and in some areas of high concentration, morbidly obese, in numbers that are sapping the treasuries of the fifty states, undercutting U.S. competitiveness, and leaving this country vulnerable to a set of long-term health crises that we will struggle to overcome, if ever. All the while, millions will die, unnecessarily, simply because they fell victim to the marketing of unhealthy dietary choices. Quite a compelling case, Alec. And since obesity is the only “lifestyle choice” that has such a widespread impact on our health and economy, it’s necessary to impose restrictions for the sake of our population, right?
But, wait, there is this one little comparison that generates almost no attention whatsoever. I covered it in this post on NPR:
The CDC estimated excessive drinking cost society nearly $224 billion in 2006, the most recent year for which all necessary statistics were available… They also said the new study likely represents an underestimate of the total cost.
This includes $161 billion in lost productivity (compared to the questionable estimate of $73 billion in lost productivity by obese people) and 85,000 annual deaths (PDF) (compared to 112,000 annual deaths related to obesity).
Now, I know there are people who consume alcoholic beverages responsibly, but that isn’t the point. At least not anymore. Americans are alcoholics, and in some areas of high concentration, raging alcoholics, in numbers that are sapping the treasuries of the fifty states, undercutting U.S. competitiveness, and leaving this country vulnerable to a set of long-term health crises that we will struggle to overcome, if ever. All the while, millions will die, unnecessarily, simply because they fell victim to the marketing of unhealthy dietary choices.
So, Alec, seeing as how these issues are so important to you, what say you join our modern day temperance movement to save New York’s alcoholics from themselves?
Whether you think an elitist, billionaire New Yorker has any business blocking your path to the soda fountain is one issue. His motives, however, are unquestionable. So says an elitist, millionaire New Yorkers.
Watch The Weight of a Nation on HBO to learn just how on target Bloomberg is.
How on target is Bloomberg? Well, the Big Gulp ban would make 16 ounce sweetened coffees illegal, but you can still get a latte the size of your head because they theoretically are over 50% dairy, an odd rule which might affect Frappuccinos, since they have less than 50% dairy. Likewise, 100% fruit juice can be served in a 50 gallon drum, even though, as WotN informs us, fruit juice has as much sugar as soda, if not more (and don’t give me this fructose vs. high fructose corn syrup… a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, period).
If I, as a critic of this ban, am a sugar junkie, Mr. Baldwin, then I can still get my fix with a massive cup of apple juice and still have the exact same effect on my body.
For once, I’d like to see legislators like Bloomberg go straight to the heart of the issue, rather than dicking around with these nonsense laws that are more for PR than an effective change.
Here’s what I propose: end all grain subsidies and kill two birds with one stone. First, you’d be rid of high fructose corn syrup and second, you’d be rid of cheap, grain-fed red meat. It’s effects would be farther reaching than a stupid cup ban, and it would actually affect the way people eat.
Or, better yet, go back to World War 2 and force rationing on the United States, which for all intents and purposes, turned us into a vegetarian country. Of course, after England went through rationing, British women went up two dress sizes, underscoring the fact that dietary interventions don’t always have the desired effects.
And Mayor Bloomberg, if you’re going to propose your nanny state laws, could you do us all a favor and at least propose an evidence-based approach, rather than experimenting on your constituents?
I’ve issued a brief redaction.
*I’m planning to dissect WotN at great length (a post for each episode) in the near future… if you’re interested joining me in posting a response that week, please let me know in the notes.
**A second, similer study from San Diego seems to indicate that menu labeling might not have been what influenced the decrease. Researchers compared two counties with and without menu labeling and found that both counties had a similar 100 calorie decrease. The calories purchased for their children did not change. However, another randomized, controlled trial suggested that parents will choose items with 100 fewer calories for their children, but not for themselves.