Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"Child Obesity" campaigns encourage child anorexia

Children as young as five are being diagnosed with anorexia as experts blame stress and a national obsession with obesity for a shocking rise in the number of NSW youth being treated for the illness. Pressures from family breakdowns, peers, school and the electronic media meant children were falling victim to the disease years earlier than they were last decade, adolescent health specialist Michael Kohn, from the Children's Hospital at Westmead, said. The typical age of onset is now between 12 and 14, compared to the average age of 16 as recently as five years ago.

Since 2001 there has been a 20 per cent rise in the number of children younger than 18 being admitted to the hospital with anorexia. About 45 new patients are admitted every year and a similar number of patients aged between 15 and 20 are treated in Westmead Hospital's psychiatric unit, which handles the majority of child eating disorder cases in NSW. Dr Kohn said the hospital was now treating children aged between 7 and 11. In children that young, anorexia is as common among boys as it is in girls although, after 12, females are at least 10 times more likely to develop the illness. "Young people are under increasing stress and stress comes from so many factors in their lives," Dr Kohn said. The physical impact of the disease is much greater on pre-pubescent children because the malnutrition coincides with the period of peak growth and development.

Television shows, cartoons, websites, games and toy figurines had promoted a "thin" ideal among children, Dr Kohn said. A focus on the obesity epidemic could also fuel eating disorders. Eating Disorders Foundation executive officer Greta Kretchmer said the focus on obesity and eating the right food had created a backlash. "When you have some people who have perfectionist tendencies, it leads to them trying to do it too well by cutting out all fats, all carbohydrates, all dairy," she said. The foundation has seen a quadrupling in the number of calls about eating disorders over the past five years, with many about children aged 8-13. The youngest was a five-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with anorexia. The child had been teased in preschool and was about to start kindergarten. "He got it into his mind that if he went to school he could not be fat because he would be teased worse, so he got terrified of becoming overweight," Ms Kretchmer said. "His poor mum was beside herself. How do you reason with a five-year-old?"

Sarah, 26, of West Pennant Hills, who did not want her surname published, overcame anorexia six years ago. She said wanting to be thin was only part of the problem. "It was other types of pressures, wanting to fit in to the world," Sarah said. Sarah now works as a psychologist and counsels other young people with eating disorders. "We are socialised to be very image-driven and you can see that more and more in younger and younger girls," she said. "Most of them now are wearing make-up before my generation would have been. I think it is pressure to do well at school and peer pressure, which comes from a social expectation that people will be slim and attractive."


Advertising is a free speech issue

The ban on junk food ads on British TV is far more 'mind-controlling' than anything a cynical adman could come up with.

I can’t have been the only person who, upon hearing that the Office for Communications planned to introduce a widespread ban on junk food advertising on British TV, thought to himself: ‘Who the hell do these poncy unelected suits think they are?’ And yet there has been little outcry over the ban. Ofcom announced this week that in March 2007 it will introduce a ‘total ban’ on ads for hamburgers, crisps, chocolate and other foodstuffs high in fat, salt or sugar during all children’s programming, on all children’s channels and during any other programmes that have a ‘particular appeal’ to 16-year-olds and under. The only complaint is that Ofcom hasn’t gone far enough. The failure to extend the ban to adults programmes that children also watch – like Coronation Street or, come to think of it, pretty much any show on TV – was a ‘betrayal’ of future generations, who now face the prospect of obesity, ill-health and early death, said health campaigners and commentators.

A far better response to Ofcom’s illiberal, patronising and bizarre ban would have been to tell Ofcom officials to get stuffed, and to disband themselves while they’re at it. I don’t hold a candle for big corporations; I don’t like the fact that they can afford to flog their wares in primetime TV slots or on big brash billboards on street corners, while cash-strapped outfits who make far better products – like spiked, for example – have to rely on word-of-mouth and something called ‘viral marketing’ (which I’ve never liked the sound of).

And yet I would far rather take my chances in the weird and loud chatroom that is the world of advertising than have public space sanitised on my behalf by an unrepresentative quango which, like mother, thinks it knows best. Advertising is a free speech issue, or at least it ought to be. Because behind today’s anti-ad campaigning there lurks a degrading view of the public as fickle and easily bought off, who must be protected from certain words and imagery by better men and women. And that is far more patronising – far more ‘mind-controlling’ – than anything a cynical suited and booted adman could come up with.

The first striking thing about Ofcom’s ban on junk food ads is that the justifications for it are – if you will forgive my post-watershed language – total bollocks. Forget facts or evidence; this ban is based on a creepy combination of scaremongering, snobbery and paternalism.

Ofcom documents and media coverage of the ban constantly refer to ‘junk food’, as if it were an always-existing factual and historical category. In fact, some experts argue that there is no such thing as junk food. According to Vincent Marks, emeritus professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Surrey and co-editor of Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We’re Told About Food and Health: ‘Junk food is an oxymoron. Food is either good – that is, it is enjoyable to eat and will sustain life – or it is good food that has gone bad, meaning that it has deteriorated and gone off.’ For Marks, the ‘junk food’ tag is a moral judgement rather than a health-based one: ‘To label a food as “junk” is just another way of saying, “I disapprove of it”.’ (1)

There’s always a big side order of snobbery in denunciations of junk food – which might explain why Ofcom’s rules will mean that Domino’s Pizzas (an eaterie popular in working-class areas) will have to stop sponsoring The Simpsons, while Gordon Ramsay (whose Channel 4 show The F Word is popular among teens who like his swearing and general cockiness) will still be free to make fatty dishes like duck a la orange and salty pork steaks and chunky chips with their red potato skins still attached. It is hard not to sympathise with the boss of Domino’s Pizzas, who said he might try to get around the new rules by sticking a bowl of salad next to his pizzas because at least salad is seen as ‘good’ grub (2).

Ofcom and its backers claim their tough action is necessary to stop the new generation of Brits from fast becoming the most ‘unhealthy in history’ (3). What, more unhealthy than those kids who lived through (or didn’t live through, more to the point) Black Death, smallpox, wars and food shortages? This is clearly codswallop. In 1900, there were 140 deaths per 1,000 births; that had fallen to 5.7 by 1999 and it continues to fall. Of those born in the early 1900s, 63 per cent died before they reached 60; today only 11 per cent die before 60. A boy born in 1901 could expect to live to 46, and a girl to 50; today a boy is likely to live to 76 and a girl to 81. British children can expect to live more comfortably, and for longer, than any generation in history.

And Ofcom relies on very shaky evidence for its basic premise that banning junk food ads will change children’s eating habits. One of its pieces of evidence is an email from a self-selected group of parents called NetMums, who claim that ‘TV ads for junk food do work – they make children demand junk food which inevitably means more consumption of junk food.’ (4) More serious studies have found little evidence of a clear link between ads and eating habits. As one news report said this week, there is a ‘relative paucity of evidence that TV advertising has much effect on children’s food choices’ (5). An academic study found that ‘just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising’ (6).

Ofcom’s ban is based on fear dressed up as facts: children are not as unhealthy as the hysterical headlines claim, and there’s little evidence that the blunt instrument of TV censorship will make them switch from a Happy Meal to broccoli with a side of semi-skimmed milk. What really seems to be motivating Ofcom and its supporters is a patronising view of parents. Mums and dads are seen as powerless to resist ‘pester power’ demands for sweets and snacks. In banning ads during children’s programmes, Ofcom sends a powerful message that parents cannot be trusted to do right by their kids. It is effectively setting itself up as a surrogate parent, making decisions on behalf of mums and dads who are apparently too weak-minded or thick to make the right decision themselves.

We’ve gone from ‘Watch with mother’ to ‘Watch with the strange men and women from a jumped-up quango called Ofcom because they’re more caring than your mother’.

Ofcom likes to present itself as a ‘media literacy’ outfit whose aim is to ensure balance and quality in the communications media in Britain. That is a case of false advertising if ever I heard one. Someone call the trading standards authority. In truth, Ofcom is a petty and censorious organisation seeking to control public debate and public space and protect people from what it views as their own worst instincts. It is at the forefront of new forms of censorship that cloak themselves in ethical lingo and use nice words like ‘diversity’ and ‘respect’ as a cover for clamping down on free speech.

So Ofcom banned a beer advert for giving ‘undue emphasis to the alcohol strength of the product’. Er, why else do people buy beer, if it isn’t for a bit of ‘alcohol strength’? It banned a radio ad that made a pun on the word ‘faggot’ (which can mean a meat product or a homosexual), decreeing that the ad was ‘capable of causing serious offence’. And usually it bans things in response to handfuls of complaints. That beer ad was banned after Ofcom received one complaint, the radio ad after it received three complaints. Recently Ofcom demanded that Hanna-Barbera remove all cigarette-smoking from its entire back catalogue of Tom and Jerry cartoons after it received a single complaint (7).

Ofcom represents the tyranny of the minority. What about the 60 million of us who aren’t offended by strong booze or the word ‘faggot’ or cartoon cats puffing on a cartoon fag? Why should the public realm – that marketplace of ads, goods, debate and argument – be designed to the tastes of tiny handfuls of people who are weirdly oversensitive? Outraged of Oldham was once restricted to writing cranky green-ink letters to the local paper. Now, thanks to Ofcom and its mission to ensure that no one is ever offended, he’s dictating what images and words the rest of us can see and hear.

No, the world of advertising is not a level playing field. Yes, big corporations can speak more loudly and to more people than you or I can. But we should still defend advertising from today’s gracious and caring censors. You can’t make things more equal or free by running to powerful bodies like Ofcom and pleading with them to punish the nasty corporation and its adman who offended your sensibilities on the train to work. I would rather be Richard Branson’s potential target than Ofcom’s bitch; a free citizen or consumer able to make up my own mind about what I want to buy from companies that are at least upfront, rather than the charge of a powerful quango whose board members I don’t know from Adam.

From Ofcom’s attack on junk food ads to those campaign groups who demand bans on ads for 4x4s, cheap flights, cigarettes and booze: the argument seems to be that people are gullible and thus must be watched over by caring men and women in positions of power. Funnily enough, that is the same justification used by censors throughout history, from Torquemada to Tony Blair: all of their bans are about giving a sedative to society, sanitising public discussion, and protecting people from an alleged harm. Thanks, but no thanks.

For Karl Marx, the ‘chatter’ of consumerist society was one of the more positive aspects of capitalism. The capitalist ‘searches for means to spur [people] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire [people] with new needs by constant chatter etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment…’ (8) So what if ads are sometimes irritating and get into our heads? Forever knowing the tune to ‘Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water’ is a small price to pay for openness in public space and chatter.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter? It is just about pure fat. Surely it should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). For a summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and no lasting harm from them has ever been shown.


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