The following discussion regards the editorial comments at Rightthinker.com, a “conservative” website directed to me by Rondi. I haven’t read any of the articles on the site yet, so will make no comments about the site’s overall style, perspective, quality or content. Instead, this brief editorial jumped out at me:
“Have you ever wondered why the food industry is such a target? Why is it for instance that New York city would ban trans fats which while not being good for you, probably have resulted in fewer deaths than the consumption of alcohol or smoking in recent years. Not that righthinker believes that the state should ban these activities, rather this comparison highlights another problem with the state making decisions about what you consume. These decisions are rarely made on the basis of hard comparative analysis rather on the basis of the comparative strength of lobbying. Let’s face it, the trans fat lobby hardly has the same money and influence as alcohol and tobacco.”
I make no suggestions or allegations about this specific writer’s motivations or biases. Rather, I’d like to point out a couple of generic things. First, contrary to the editorial’s implication, the global processed food industry is bigger and more powerful than the tobacco or alcohol industries combined. Processed food sales worldwide are worth approximately 3.2 trillion US$ per year. In contrast, the global tobacco industry is worth about 115 billion US$. I have no stats on the global alcohol industry, but cannot imagine for a second that it approaches the value of either tobacco or processed food, especially since pretty much every community produces its own local moonshine to undercut market prices, and, outside the West, alcohol is dirt cheap.
Does this enormity of market value translate to lobbying muscle power? I don’t know, but I suspect it wouldn’t need to. Food production is such an interwoven aspect of modern government and society that it almost needs no formal lobbying. In contrast, tobacco is a luxury, not a necessity. It’s marketed role in society needs to be continually and artificially reinforced by paid and increasingly desperate lobbyists.
So let’s explore the editorial’s central point: why is that trans fats are being banned outright, while tobacco and alcohol only get licensed and marginalized? There are several answers:
- As the editorial suggests, lobbying might be an element at play here, but not to the extent the author seems to think.
- The banning of trans fats does not cripple the processed food industry. The world still needs processed food; this legislation just compels the industry to be a little more responsible when it comes to public health. The short term pain for the industry is worth the long term gain for the species and, ultimately, for the food vendors, as well. Tobacco, on the other hand, cannot be reformed. There is not an equivalent strategy for making tobacco healthier. It is, by its very nature, toxic and unhealthy. But it is so much a part of our lives that it cannot (nor would I argue that it should) be banned outright. Thus, strategies for minimizing its impact are best: taxation, limiting points of sale, and public education.
- Alcohol and tobacco, while unhealthy, are nonetheless naturally occurring items. They were around before civilization and will likely be here after humans are long gone. (Yes, some fermentation does occur in nature without human intervention, so alcohol doesn’t need people to exist.) Banning them outright is therefore foolhardy. Trans fats, on the other hand, are a completely synthetic creation of human beings, brought about solely to facilitate the packaging and transport of cheap foods. Its production and inclusion in our food can and should be banned; Mother Nature would not fight us on this.
- The author pompously declares that trans fats have resulted in fewer deaths than alcohol and tobacco. Where do I begin with this? For one thing, trans fats have been around for a few decades, while tobacco and alcohol have both been around for tens of thousands of years; of course the latter will have resulted in more deaths! More to the point, trans fats kill people slowly and indirectly, contributing to chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease; there will never be a death certificate that reads, “Death by heart failure, complicated by ingestion of trans fats 30 years prior.” It’s an asinine, misleading and uninformed point to include in an editorial.
- The banning of alcohol and tobacco will instantly create a black market for these items; with that would come an increase in crime, and the creation of criminals out of people who just want to have a drink in their own homes. Trans fats have no addictive quality about them. The ban means that trans fats will be replaced by regular cis-fats, which taste exactly the same, but which do not have the additional deleterious effects specific to trans fats. There will be no “trans fats black market”, not while anyone can still buy a pound of natural, heart-clogging bacon at the grocery store. In other words, there is no big social or criminal downside to this legislation, as there would be with the banning of alcohol or tobacco.
- Lastly, it can be argued that we have learned from our experience with alcohol and tobacco: maybe we, as a society, should have nipped tobacco in the bud long before it became entrenched in our social discourse? It’s too late to do it so suddenly now, but there was a brief opportunity historically to discourage the industrial farming, sale and the down-your-throat marketing of tobacco. (Alcohol, of course, is another matter entirely, as it does have some positive health associations.) If we learn from our politicized failings with tobacco, then we should move ahead quickly and disallow the sale of foods containing trans fats, the same way we disallow the sale of foods containing poisons or carcinogenic preservatives.
Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would be opposed to the banning of such an unhealthy and unnecessary product, unless one embraces an irrational attachment to the rights of companies to make money in any way possible and at whatever public cost.
I get the author’s unspoken suggestion: that this ban is an indication of the growing anti-corporate food movement, one that might irrationally embrace the unproven “superior” qualities of so-called “organic” and local foods over the established global food hegemony. And, of course, it’s almost a cliche now that any source calling itself “conservative” is going to necessarily be pro-business and anti-state (with respect to all issues except war, that one topic in which the interests of both business and the state coincide).
But let’s stop dicking around, shall we? Trans fats are bad. The only good thing about them is that they reduce the costs of processed foods. But you know what else reduces the cost of food? Eating non-foods, like cardboard, instead of real food, like vegetables. Or how about flavoured dog faeces instead of ground beef? That would save a bundle; and with some chemical augmentation, you might not taste the difference. Ironically, both cardboard and dog shit are more healthful than trans fats. I wonder how Rightthinker.com would feel about companies selling cardboard and shit sandwiches masquerading as real hamburgers? “Hey, if it helps them make a faster buck, leave the poor, downtrodden processed food companies alone and be happy with your cardboard and shit sandwiches, you damn organic-farming hippies.”
Maybe I’m being unfair. The editorialist did not overtly come out against the ban, after all. But we can all read between the lines.
I, for one, would like to see further legislated changes to processed foods, including thhe removal of products made from white flour, replaced with items made from whole grain flours, and the removal of products that use corn syrup as a cheap sweetener.