The Conversation on Junk Food Marketing: Industry-Led Efforts Challenge Local Policy Solutions
This week saw major developments in the food, beverage, and chain restaurant industry’s efforts to drown progressive local policies in legal challenges and lobbying dollars. On Monday, March 11, New York State Supreme Court justice Milton Tingling struck down New York City’s cap on sugar-sweetened beverage containers, which was set to go into effect the following day. This ruling puts the brakes on an innovative effort that advocates have been eyeing closely. Halfway across the country in Mississippi, state lawmakers passed an industry-supported “anti-Bloomberg bill” designed to “bar counties and towns from enacting rules that require calorie counts to be posted, that cap portion sizes, or that keep toys out of kids' meals.” Hernando, Mississippi, mayor Chip Johnson decried the bill for “taking away home rule” and “tell[ing] people at the local level what to do.”
Not surprisingly, New York City’s sugar-sweetened beverage cap has been strongly opposed by the largest players in the beverage industry from the start. It has also attracted some criticism from civil rights advocates because the cap would not have been applied evenly across all retail venues. At its core, the sugar-sweetened beverage cap represents local innovation to create healthier defaults and curb the onslaught of junk food marketing. Like the early days of tobacco control, cities and counties across the country serve as vital testing grounds for novel (and sometimes imperfect) policies that ultimately fuel a national food and beverage policy movement. Both the NYC ruling and the Mississippi preemption bill demonstrate that while food, beverage, and chain restaurant companies may make small concessions on the front end, they’re working overtime behind the scenes to derail community efforts. No matter your stance on a given policy proposal, it’s clear that industry’s attacks on local initiatives pose a threat to all advocates working at the community level.
As these two stories continue to unfold, we encourage advocates to speak up for the critical role of public health policy, innovative local solutions, and the imperative to develop community prevention strategies that protect the health of children and families.
Here are some of the state and national news stories:
• Los Angeles Times: “Soda war looms as judge blocks NYC ban on large sugary drinks” (3/11/13). The Los Angeles Times chronicles New York City’s recent history of innovative public health policies that have gone on to serve as models for the rest of the country, such as NYC’s menu labeling initiative that is now being implemented nationwide under the Affordable Care Act.
• New York Times: “Judge strikes down NYC limit on large sugary drinks” (3/12/13). Mayor Bloomberg responds to the judge’s ruling by asserting his responsibility to pass policies that protect children’s health. “I’ve got to defend my children, and yours, and do what’s right to save lives.”
• NPR’s Morning Edition: “Soda Wars Backlash: Mississippi Passes 'Anti-Bloomberg' Bill” (3/12/13). In response to Mississippi legislation pre-empting local food marketing policies, a Mississippi mayor advocates for community-driven health policy. Chip Johnson, mayor of Hernando, Miss., near the Tennessee border, is no fan of a soda ban, but he doesn't like the anti-Bloomberg bill, either. Hernando has built biking and walking paths all over town, and has received national attention for the work. Johnson bristles at the legislature's efforts to dictate what he can do in pursuit of a healthier community, including restricting the ability to put nutritional information on menus... You know what? If little Alligator, Miss., wanted to do that, that's up to the people that live there. It is not up to the state to tell the people at the local level what to do," Johnson says. "They're just using this to mask what the bill is really about, which is about taking away home rule."
Here are some ways you can take action:
• Respond to the coverage above or related news stories that you come across with an online comment or letter to the editor. Check out Strategic Alliance's tips for penning a letter to the editor.
• Tap into the opportunities this recent media coverage has provided. Use this focus on the role of local policies in promoting public health to pitch a story to a reporter or write an op-ed highlighting your community’s efforts.
• Connect with Strategic Alliance on Twitter (@Strat_Alliance) to share your efforts with us and get more updates on this issue. Please consider tweeting this alert to your followers: New @strat_alliance media advocacy resource: Stand up for local policy solutions to public health challenges http://ow.ly/iVRQB
Here are some angles to cover in your response:
• Local policy has a vital role to play in promoting health. Our national conversation over the role of policy in promoting health and safety reflects a desire for local control—communities want the ability to make decisions for themselves. Communities know best the challenges they face, and need the space to design and implement local solutions to build health in the ways they know will work best.
• Public health has a long, proud history of using policy to protect health and individuals. Industry does not have carte blanche to sell products that make us ill. Policies that regulate tobacco, seatbelts, and lead in paint have successfully built on this same principle of consumer protection. Such laws were controversial when first introduced but now they’re a given. With evidence mounting that sugary beverages are detrimental to health, New York’s sugar-sweetened beverage cap is a small step that’s working toward a similar shift in norms.
• The research affirms it: addressing sugary beverages makes sense. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that sugar-sweetened beverages are among the largest contributors to the chronic disease epidemic. These beverages accounted for 43% of the increase in daily calories consumed between 1977 and 2001, and continue to be the largest source of added sugar in the average American’s diet.
• We need policies that protect children and families. And that means stronger government oversight of food marketing. The current system puts the onus on parents to shield their kids. But when food marketers have access to children in schools, in stores, on television, and increasingly on the internet, parents have the odds stacked against them. Policies that limit the reach of junk food marketing shift the balance in the right direction. After all, parents can't do it all alone.