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Anti-Obesity Rules and Unintended Consequences

August 11, 2010

Pizza Pie

Did you know that, in the United States, one out of three school districts offers its students items from a fast-food chain? It says so in a CNBC special report called “One Nation, Overweight” and compiled by Scott Wapner. The most common is a certain brand of pizza, which seems determined to make kids not only addicted to pizza, but also loyal to one particular brand, for life. Wapner says,

After years of inaction, Washington has now zeroed in on the food companies, pressing industry leaders to make their products healthier. Some lawmakers are pushing for a ban on soft drinks and candy in schools.

The state of Kansas has ruled that by Fall 2011, all candy, junk food, and sugary drinks will be banned from the school vending machines. In Canada, we learn from Ivor Tossell, the city of Toronto plans to eliminate all soft drinks from the school vending machines, offering not just healthy choices, but also no choice at all. The machines will only stock low-calorie and no-calorie drinks. If kids want soda pop, they will have to get it somewhere else.

But, Dr. Pretlow asks in Overweight: What Kids Say, do these measures actually help? There is always the “forbidden-fruit” factor, and a tendency for a black market to spring up. As we have noted before, the making of more rules can lead to unlooked-for surprises. In places like Scotland, it has already been observed that strict food rules in school only lead to a mass exodus of students to surrounding sweet shops at break time, and an increase of prowling food vendor trucks around schools. So now, if they want to be taken seriously, the authorities are faced with the prospect of passing prison-like regulations to keep the kids on school grounds; and so on, into a spiraling nightmare of the ever-tightened control.

Whenever there is prohibition, an underground economy springs up. It appears that the ban on junk food can only lead to schools becoming even more like prisons. And kids, bless their hearts, show enormous ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit when someone tries to cut off the supply of what they want. Take a look at Slide 102 in Dr. Pretlow’s presentation, which is actually a video clip of a Los Angeles high school student telling us how the banning of junk food from her campus has led to a flourishing black market. Surely, this is nobody’s definition of a good outcome. Do we really want to create a whole new criminal class? It’s already happening.

In May, a Texas third-grader was sentenced to a week’s detention for possessing a piece of candy. If she had brought it from home, that would have been okay, but she was given it by another child, which broke the rules, because in some funky quasi-legal way the school was then providing the unhealthy food, and the district could then have lost its funding. You may think that we’re kidding, but it’s all in the article, reported by Martha Neil in the ABA Journal.

In the U.S. and other places, a debate is going on over whether an abundance of junk food in a young person’s diet is a form of child abuse. Some have even suggested that parents should be punished by fines or jail, or even by the removal of overweight children from their families.

In the newsletter of the Medical University of South Carolina, Louis Yuhasz, founder of an after-school weight loss program, mentions a teenage girl who had gained 150 pounds during a year she spent in a foster home, which had brought her weight up to more than 400 pounds. It is not known how she ended up in a foster home, but it doesn’t give very much hope for the idea of removing obese children from their own parents.

Unintended consequences can even attend your choice of neighborhood. When you decided where to live, hopefully it was with the luxury of taking into consideration such factors as proximity to a suitable school, to recreational facilities, and so on. Something else also matters, however — an unintended consequence that few homebuyers or tenants consciously take into consideration when planning a move. Check this out:

A study conducted by the Schroeder Center for Health Policy at the College of William & Mary shows a direct correlation between childhood obesity and the proximity of a child’s home to fast food restaurants.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “CNBC special report: One nation, overweight,” MSNBC, 05/18/10
Source: “Zero Tolerance for Junk Food at Lunch Puts Girl in School Detention for Week,” ABA Journal, 05/07/10
Source: “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? What Kids Say,” Weigh2Rock
Source: “Parents are key to weight loss,” The Post and Courier, 05/29/10
Image by iluvrhinestones, used under its Creative Commons license.

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