Obesity, Class, and the Cheeseburger Bill

A week ago, upon hearing the phrase “Cheeseburger Bill,” one might have thought that McDonald’s was adding a new face to their already-bloated cast of cartoon characters in order to help sell their wares to an already-bloated consumer base. In fact, the Cheeseburger Bill is among the latest pieces of legislation to go successfully before the United States House of Representatives. If it receives Senate approval, the bill would eliminate the possibility of future lawsuits against fast food giants for their undeniable role in perpetuating America’s increasing problems with obesity.

Television, Internet, and print news sources have exhausted their video and photographic file footage of acephalous, endomorphic torsos waddling unwittingly past cameras in order to explain the legal implication of bill: The consumer alone would be responsible for what they eat. With a new report this past week indicating that obesity is set to overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths in America, this bill would impact millions of lives, and could produce billions of dollars worth of medical service-related financial strain, which now can not be shifted even in part to the big industry players like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or E. coli -lawsuit veterans Jack in the Box. Or, in other words, while Phillip Morris may have to fork over money to pay for the devastation caused by his tobacco products, nobody could nail him for Kraft Dinner.

The tobacco industry must surely be observing the success of the Cheeseburger Bill with an enormous sense of envy. After all, their products are similar on a number of counts. Both are marketed to children with well-designed cartoon characters. Both are ubiquitous in terms of cross-promotion – from tobacco’s Formula One racing to fast food’s Disney tie-ins. Both are addictive products often initially consumed with only partial knowledge of their range of harmful effects. Another similarity flows from the hereditary nature of consumption patterns with regards to both sets of products: Children raised in an environment surrounded by smoke or by constant trips to shopping mall food courts and drive-thru windows are more likely than others to suffer the consequences.

Of course, information about the evils of smoking has been far more consistent over the past 20 years than nutritional advice from experts. A population which for years has been hearing about the devastating effects of a diet composed of too much red meat, salt, and fat has suddenly been informed that, in fact, carbohydrates must be avoided – as the meat-centred, high-fat Atkins diet sweeps the continent with more exposure than any fad in recent memory. In the age of Internet rumour-milling, sophisticated advertising campaigns, and contradictory messages – the espresso upon which I depend so helplessly in the morning is set to either kill me or save my life, depending on which article you read – the general population seems confused by the logical “Eat healthy, exercise often” message they get from their doctors, and the message put out by KFC claiming that their artery-clogging batter vessels are part of a healthy, high-protein regimen. A few friends of mine, who recently drove down to Seattle for the celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, laughingly posed for a photo outside an establishment that’s signage read something along the lines of: “Join the diet revolution.” The building was a 7-11.

The already-dubious assertion that consumers alone bear responsibility for what they eat seems even more suspicious in light of the clear social dimensions to the problem of North American obesity, which underscore the questions of health with significant racial and class-based overtones. A recent article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is unequivocal in this regard, stating plainly: “There is no question that the rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the United States follow a socio-economic gradient, such that the burden of disease falls disproportionately on people with limited resources, racial-ethnic minorities, and the poor” (Adam Drewnowski and S.E. Specter, “Poverty and Obesity: The Role of Energy Density and Energy Costs”). The report goes on to outline the fact that, with the exception of Asian Americans, every racial minority in the States is marked by a higher rate of obesity than American whites.

This scientific research buttresses the anecdotal evidence readily observable on any American Greyhound bus or in any shopping mall, in addition to what ought to be a common sense equation. While popular Atkins and South Beach diets appeal to those who can afford grocery bills so heavily built around expensive meats and seafood, Drewnowski and Specter write that “according to USDA surveys, most low-income respondents spent their limited food dollars on energy-dense foods that were largely composed of added sugars and fat.”

Seen in this light, the principle assertion of the Cheeseburger Bill – that individuals alone bear the responsibility for their eating habits – takes on troubling dimensions of racism and class arrogance. One is left to assume that either the bill’s authors are correct, and that therefore brown-skinned and poverty-stricken communities possess dulled instincts towards self-preservation (despite an inclination towards preservatives), or else conclude that there are, in fact, significant social contributors to America’s problems with obesity that require policy-oriented solutions.

With the producers and vendors of high-fat, high-calorie goods bolstered by the success of the Cheeseburger Bill, it remains to be seen whether the recent trends towards offering ‘healthy’ alternatives in fast food establishments will continue. McDonald’s recently pulled its “Super-Size” option in the United States, a policy decision analogous to the introduction of filtered cigarettes. In Canada, the company has introduced its “Lighter Choices” menu, offering a host of ‘healthier’ menu options (analogous to the introduction of new, thicker condoms – they may be a good idea, but no one is likely to reach for them in the heat of the moment). According to their web site, the fast food giant ” worked with a leading Canadian nutritionist and some of Canada’s leading companies in the development of the menu category.” Still, the light-of-coin may lean towards the restaurant’s fatty staples; the Lighter Choices menu offers pricey goods, such as the Mandarin California Greens ($5.34), the Whole Wheat Chicken McGrill ($3.99) the Warm Chicken Oriental Salad ($6.41, and offensively named), while the grease-coaster Cheeseburger remains an easily-affordable $1.70.

None of this is to suggest that individual consumers – this portly reporter included – bear no responsibility in the wild growth of obesity-related illness on this continent. But individualist approaches such as those manifested in the Cheeseburger Bill, which deny the very real and overarching social dimensions to a problem based around science, can do far more harm than good. So long as the employed have only 15 minutes break time in which to consume cheap, efficient and, ultimately, deadly food, these very serious health problems will persist. In other words, though “I” may be “lovin’ it,” it’s “We” who’ve got to do something about it.

Charles Demers is an activist and writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia and is a founding editor of SevenOaksMag.com.

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