City Councils Can’t Combat Complexities of Obesity

By Brazell Carter, M.D. The November elections are behind us. Campaign signs have come down, and the endless stream of political ads have been replaced with reminders that Christmas is days away. One of the Bay Area’s highest profile elections was Measure N—the so-called “soda tax” on the ballot in my home town, the city of Richmond. Supporters claimed taxing businesses that sell soda and other sweetened beverages would curb obesity by reducing consumption of sugary drinks and raising revenue to fund recreation and nutrition education programs. As a long-serving physician in West Contra Costa County, I was with the 67 percent of voters who defeated Measure N. That doesn’t mean obesity—particularly childhood obesity—isn’t a serious problem in Richmond. The election is over, the problem remains. So where do we go from here? Unfortunately, activists behind Measure N and a companion measure in the Southern California city of El Monte, also repudiated by voters, are busy trying to write the history of these two elections in a manner that claims victory in defeat and justifies bringing “improved” tax measures before voters and local legislators up and down the state. They attribute their losses to campaign spending by the other side—implicitly saying voters in Richmond and El Monte weren’t smart enough to decide the questions on the merits. They say they will learn from their mistakes and win next time. I’m not an activist, I’m a doctor. My aim isn’t winning campaigns; it is healing people. Taxing businesses that sell or consumers that buy a can of soda or a carton of chocolate milk won’t heal high blood pressure or diabetes. Attitudes about healthy nutritional choices cannot be made through political mandates; city councils aren’t equipped to address the complexities of obesity. Food is comfort, culture, a form of celebration, an escape from boredom. How we eat is influenced by the people who raised us, our environment, our income. Taxing soft drinks won’t do a thing to convince a young people they are valuable; that their bodies are valuable, and that they need to respect themselves by eating the right foods and exercising. These are among the lessons we need to instill in children and so many young parents who are passing along learned behaviors. Peddlers of the idea that we make progress by demonizing and taxing soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages—products that account for seven percent of the average American’s total caloric intake—are the snake-oil salesmen of yesteryear. Why do residents of Marin County—just across a bridge from Richmond—have better health outcomes than residents of my city?  Primarily, it is because they have jobs and higher incomes that buy access to quality health care, better food choices, the best education and safer neighborhoods. Those are issues mayors and city councils are equipped to address. Richmond needs activists with the passion of Measure N’s supporters to push instead for more jobs, safer streets, better schools. What cities like Richmond—and there are many in California—don’t need are more Measure Ns that distract from serious discussion and action.
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