Debate: Should Junk Food Be Illegal?

Yes, that’s right: we are talking about laws designed to curb junk food consumption, particularly amongst children. The logic behind just such a trend in the United States is that one in three of the country’s kids and teens is overweight or obese — nearly triple the rate in 1963.

Surely it would be much better if we followed the idea that ‘all things are best in moderation’. But that is just not happening — we seem to be unable to voluntarily moderate our consumption of junk and unhealthy food.

It is therefore not surprising that childhood obesity is now the top health concern among parents — more than drug abuse and smoking, according to the American Heart Association. This worry is because obesity in children is causing a range of chronic health issues that formerly were not seen until adulthood, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels.

The US is not alone in facing this problem: as we have discussed before on Our World 2.0, obesity has gone global. According to nutritional surveys from the World Health Organization’s Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition, in 2010 there were 43 million overweight or obese preschool-aged children in the world and an additional 92 million at risk of becoming overweight. This means a prevalence of 6.7 percent, up from 4.2 percent in 1990.

This is thanks to corporate giants targeting these new markets, and effectively; a new study finds that the rate of increase in consumption of “unhealthy commodities” (soft drinks and processed foods high in salt, fat, and sugar, as well as tobacco and alcohol) is fastest in low- and middle-income countries.

In the US, this health pandemic is being tackled at various levels of government. Case in point is New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest move: the introduction of a proposition that would limit the size of all sweetened drinks (soft drinks, lemonade, bubble tea, etc.) to 16 ounces (0.47 litres). Bloomberg has already taken other steps to try to curb the city’s high rates of obesity/overweight (34 percent of the adults are overweight and 22 percent are obese) including banning trans-fats and requiring calorie counts in restaurants.

Sinister soda pop?

George Hacker, senior policy advisor at The Center for Science in the Public Interest, explained that, “Up to half of the extra calories people are eating today compared to the 1970s are from soda [soft drinks].”

Again, this is because the soda pop/soft drink industry has expanded its market niche. Where it was historically considered as a treat to be consumed once or twice a week, it has become a daily habit for so many around the globe. The soda industry also aggressively targets children and poor communities with its advertisements. (Though this is hopefully falling out of fashion, if other big players follow Disney’s recent plan taking ads for junk food off its children’s programming.)

Studies have indeed found a link between sugary drinks and childhood obesity to the point where a contingent of US national and local health, medical and consumer organizations, municipal public health departments, and several prominent individuals are calling on the country’s Surgeon General to issue a report on the health effects of soda and other sugary drinks. Their hope is that such a report will have a similar impact as the 1964 landmark Surgeon General’s report on tobacco use, and bring authoritatively to light the public health impact of these types of drinks.

[quote quote=”Laws strictly curbing school sales of junk food and sweetened drinks may play a role in slowing childhood obesity, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.” type=”text” ]

Meanwhile, laws strictly curbing school sales of junk food and sweetened drinks may play a role in slowing childhood obesity, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics that analyzed data on 6,300 students in 40 US states and examined several databases of state laws governing food and drinks sold in public school vending machines and school stores, outside of mealtime. The study considered laws to be strong if they included specific nutrition requirements, such as limits on sugar and fats.

The results of the study showed that consistently strong laws had the biggest impact. For example, children who were 5 feet tall (1.5 metres) and 100 pounds (45.4 kg) gained on average 2.2 fewer pounds (998 gr) if they lived in states with strong laws. Though this change seems slim, obesity experts argue that even incremental change is important.

Draconian government overreach?

So, what do you think?

Is this problem important enough to overlook the fact that legislative moves smack of a ‘nanny state’,  or worse yet, in the words of comedian/social commentator Jon Stewart, are such laws “draconian government overreach”? It is a subject that he has pursued with some verve on the Daily Show, pointing out the hypocrisy of regulating super-sized soda drinks in New York when there is so much unhealthy food available almost everywhere in the city.

Perhaps we should be asking: If this stuff is so bad, why not make it illegal for the food industry to create such “edible food-like substances” (in author Michael Pollan’s words) that endanger people’s health?

[quote quote=”Is it not grossly paradoxical and ridiculously counterproductive that the US government spends billions of dollars to support the production of additives key in confecting junk food (like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils)?” type=”text” ]

Because, after all, is it not grossly paradoxical and ridiculously counterproductive that another study found that the US government spends billions of dollars to support the production of additives key in confecting junk food (like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils) while providing only a fraction of that amount for fresh produce?

Should we look on the bright side and have hope that this legislation is the first step in weaning ourselves off of these resource-intensive food stuffs?

Better yet, is it indicative of a global progression towards vegetarianism? Such a shift is looking ideal according to some. A new Swedish report says that the price spikes expected for commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat due to this summer’s severe drought in the US may be a taste of an even more serious reality:

“The analysis showed that there will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected population in 2050 if we follow current trends,” says the Feeding a Thirsty World report by the Stockholm International Water Institute. “There will, however, be just enough water, if the proportion of animal based foods is limited to 5 percent of total calories.”

All things considered, it is certainly time to discuss all the options. Please jump in and share your opinion.

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Debate 2.0: Should junk food be illegal? by Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.



Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.

Join the Discussion

  • A more sane argument is should Government public health be OUTLAWED just to save the Constitutional liberty and freedom we all want to enjoy!

    • BrendanBarrett

      John, so is your basic point that everyone should be free to decide what they eat or drink (as they are now) and if they become obese, sick or die as a result then that is their fault? We are all responsible for our own actions and the consequences. There should be no public health service, and we should all take care of our own health, but also we should be able to pay for private health care if we have the money. But lets say someone you know gets very sick as a result of eating something that is way passed its sell by date (because there is no government regulation) or that was contaminated in some way. Sure you can sue the place that sold you the food, but wouldn’t you have preferred to have prevented this from happening in the first place, especially if it could have been fatal. Don’t regulations, inspections and so on protect you as the consumer? Taking your freedom as paramount, are there any actions by the public health service that would be acceptable to you? Would you accept educational programmes? Would you accept inspections of food factories? Would you accept guidelines on healthy eating? Just curious.

  • A more Plausible Argument is Outlawing Government Public Health and restoring the Inalienable Constitutional Rights and liberty we ALL have the Birthright to demand in America!

    • Kenji Watanabe

      There are certain inalienable rights under U.S. Constitution, among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. That is the true genius of America. All these fundamental rights can not be fully exercised without knowing truth of our life. Outlawing government public health would not help us to learn the truth, rather would shade the truth about our life, I thought.

  • StoppingTheTrain

    What is the real issue here? Societal resources are invested in the production of substances that are harmful to consumers and create substantial costs, borne by society as a whole, over the long term. Further, these resources are allocated to industries such as those producing junk food, through a government system that is prone to abuse by vested interests with individualistic goals.
    So how do we align government and industry in support of healthy products? It would seem, as demonstrated by tobacco, that the costs to society must become excessively large before any positive action will occur. This includes years of fighting over competing scientific claims, obfuscation of the issue and ‘facts’ surrounding it, and piles of money to move through the court system, as those whose profit is at risk, spend their margin to keep the status quo.
    Is there a better way than legislation? I am not so sure, based upon how dysfunctional and entrenched our current system is. That said, I believe the first step is public education. People must be given complete and accurate information about what ‘food’ contains and our best understanding of how it affects us. Further, this information must be available regardless of market location, such that companies cannot simply move consumption to other places.

    • I take your point, Stopping, it is certainly a bit of a conundrum at present. Maybe then the key really is the complete and accurate information part? Perhaps we should start to learn our lessons about the “nutritionalization” and industrialization of food and finally begin to use the precautionary principle where regulation controls the creation and marketing of things that have not been fully tested and proven safe and safe not just to human health but even to the triple bottom line?

    • Kenji Watanabe

      I agree that public education would be effective on food consumption, but I also think that its effect would come out at least one or two generations away from now. Public education on nutritional values would sure effect individuals’ choice on foods but what if there were only bad food available in the market? Education might bring about no effect. Public education that directly influence decisions of CEOs of junk food manufactures would be very effective, I thought. We should be working on upstream of the phenomena rather than working on downstream, to fully implement effective solutions on this issue.

    • Hi again, Stopping. See the response I just posted to Mark. What to you think, couldn’t that combo cut it?

      • AlanZulch

        I like the proposal you posted, Carol. It is reasonable and emphasizes personal responsibility. However, my experience is that such purely personal voluntary efforts are too often insufficient to change the habits of those who are addicted to these junk foods. There are so many incredibly powerful pulls to maintain it, after all, not the least of which is the pervasive corporate advertising.

        And, because the resultant health costs get distributed to others in the health insurance system, I as an American end up subsidizing those (extremely expensive and unsustainable) health care costs through my paying higher premiums. So it is no longer simply a personal choice health issue. It is now my issue, too. And it is a larger issue of social justice, because marketers like to target communities with lower income and less access to healthy food. Eating crappy food then becomes the only practical option for many people.

        Perhaps some kind of laws regulating junk food production, consumption, marketing, etc, would be worthwhile. How about taking a portion of the corporate junk food profits and steering them toward covering the healthcare costs associated with junk food consumption? That would be more fair than, say, adding a substantial healthcare surcharge to the retail cost because, as I said, junk food is disproportionately consumed by poor people.
        Maybe the best option is to support local organizations who properly associate access to healthy food with social justice and equity issues. They work within communities to educate and help change eating habits by supporting things such as farmers markets, empowering consumers to make healthy choices, etc. When people have a choice about what to eat – and I mean practical choices – like grabbing something healthy or walking nearby to buy something good for you – they’ve been shown to do that over simply driving to the local drive-in fast food restaurant or liquor store candy shelf.

        • Thanks Alan. I like your idea of diverting a portion of corporate profits to education/capacity-building initiatives to enable lower income folks access to healthy choices so definitely, I think the “better policy options” part of the formula is key. The pursuit of profit has in so many realms seen the precautionary principle thrown out the window and this has huge bearing on food science, particularly in places like the U.S. where it the industry has far too much influence over regulators. I mean come on: subsidizing confected food-like substances that have already been shown to cause harm?!

  • schmid91

    Never understood why people had huge size anyways. Here is an observation. Shortly after the earthquake and the reactors in Fukushima blow off, we faced food shortages in the supermarkets in Japan. I remember only get one two liter bottle of water in the supermarket per person per day. Funnywise, all the soft drinks, in their fancy colours and tastes remained in the shelfs. Water was the only missing good. SO I was asking myself who was drinking all of these drinks anyways in a “None Crisis” situation. We may look out for a “soda/softdrink back to water machine” 😉

  • marknotaras

    the definition of insanity is, to paraphrase, doing the same thing over
    and over again and getting the same (I add illogical and unsustainable) result. first in america they just
    let people eat what they wanted and now THE MAJORITY of people are a strain on themselves, the environment and their so called health system. but then apparently in china teenage obesity is treble the rate of the US. they say that coke is to mexico what water is to, well, mexicans before coke. so it seems we cannot learn from each other and all nations are destined to make the same mistake unless they actively resist the barrage of junk (let’s not say junk food or fast food because it’s not really food is it?).

    banning junk packaged sugared fat consumables ala McD etc sounds extreme at first. if the junk was accurately priced (not the market failure we currently have) then such junk would be priced much higher, reflecting its various negative impacts or as economists say “externalities”: briefly 1) on the environment, namely atmosphere, water and soil depletion through unsustainable chemical-based agricultural practices and monoculturisation; 2) on our physical AND mental health, which even the junk eaters know about 3) on our economy through those high health costs and long term decline of natural and human resources 4) on our social fabric through punishingly low wages and dehumanizing labour practices both at the shopfront and in food factories and 5) on animals, eat them or not, who are forced to live in diabolically inhumane, festy conditions because we like a cheap slab of chemically injected meat. the case is clear, as we have known for decades.

    back to the question of whether to ban junk food. if the prices are continually distorted and the sick situation where fresh wholesome whole foods are more expensive than junk persists, and all the education campaigns in the world are not enough to defeat the barrage of advertising and people’s obsession with “convenience over culture” persists, then it seems clear that the only policy alternative it to ban mcjunk. i would prefer, however, that the price levers begin working so that people can make that decision for themselves. but time for us (thing about how our genetics could be changing) and the planet (the amazon is only so big) is running out.

    as has been said on OW before, cheap food has an extremely high price. people have to make the active decision to liberate themselves from false convenience and invest in their own food culture. learning a new language, studying for exams, building a house, having a baby, running a small business, drafting a report, planting flowers – most people would agree that the result of everything we do, no matter what, reflects the time, effort and thought that we put into it. so why do people believe the lie sold to them that eating can be quick, cheap and dirty? garbage in = out garbage out. out with the garbage in other words.

    • Mark! Miss you, buddy… 🙁

      Combining what you & Stopping The Train talk about, I found something that seems like it could be a viable answer! Check out this dead-simple and smart combo that was written in regards to diabetes but it applies to other diet-based chronic health issues like heart disease for sure. (Thanks to YES! Magazine)

      How to fight diabetes with better policy:

      1. Combat poverty

      People who make $15,000 or less are three times more likely to have diabetes than people who make $50,000 or more, regardless of race.

      2. End junk food subsidies

      Between 1985 and 2010 the price of beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup dropped 24%, while the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 39%.

      Do 4 things to cut your risk of diabetes by 93%:

      1. Eat healthy

      The lowest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the world occur in populations consuming a whole foods, plant-based diet.

      2. Lose weight

      3. Exercise

      Overweight people walking 150 minutes a week can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by nearly 60%.

      4. Stop smoking

  • Rashaun Benjamin

    There are many benefits that would arise from making junk food illegal. People would be much healthier, and more fit. Deaths related to an unhealthy diet would basically cease to exist. Peoples’ brain and body would function much better. However, despite all the benefits, I do not agree that junk food should be made illegal. If you think about all illegal things such as, marijuana, and other drugs, a person’s mind is set so that they really want what they know they should not/cannot have. I think any problems with junk food would just get worse.I sure as hell would be angry with the government if junk food was made illegal. We need our sugar fix. Individuals should be responsible enough to balance their diet, and watch what they eat. Parents can control how much junk their children eats. Banning it is highly unnescessary. If somebody wants to injest a plethora of junk, and turn obese, that is their problem. The rest of us are responsible enough to stay healthy.

  • james fouler

    we the people hate fast food

    join UNSOC(united socialists party) now and we promise to destroy western and turn britain into a totalitarian communist state

    • Wow, thanks, James, for your valuable contribution to paranoia and ridiculousness

      • james fouler

        I’m serious, we must dump western culture and foods and adopt Asian culture and foods
        It worked for them, so it might make us live longer

    • Chankana

      How would communism help the people eat the right food?

      • In case yours is a serious question, Chankana, James was not serious but rather, he was mocking the idea that food/health matters should be legislated.

      • james fouler

        By rationing the bad stuff to 1 a month and forcing everyone to exercise and keeping them under strict surveillance to help fight foodcrime