PET Theory

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In this morning's press release, the tireless litigation (and self) promoter John Banzhaf–who yesterday was kvelling over Morgan Spurlock's movie Super Size Me, bragging that he "helped develop its major premise"–calls attention to a study he says provides "new evidence some fattening foods may be addictive," an argument he thinks can be a winner in lawsuits against fast food companies. Reuters reports that "the researchers scanned the brains of normal, hungry people and found their brains lit up when they saw and smelled their favorite foods, in much the same way as the brains of cocaine addicts when they think about their next snort."

There are two major problems with using such evidence to recover damages from McDonald's, Burger King, or Pizza Hut. First, there's no reason to think their food is harder to resist than homemade versions of the same dishes. Second, cues for all sorts of pleasures elicit detectable changes in the brain. As the psychiatrist Sally Satel noted at a conference on obesity last year, ?brain images "cannot distinguish between an irresistible impulse and an impulse that is not resisted." Instead of showing that the urge for a cheeseburger is overwhelming, this sort of comparison suggests that the urge for a snort of cocaine is not as powerful as the government would have us believe.

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  1. Jacob: You just said what I’ve been saying ever since these anti-fat activists started comparing food to drugs. If a Big Mac is as addictive as cocaine, then coke isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.

  2. Coke isn’t bad because it is “addictive” – it’s bad because of the effects it has on your body when you consume it…

    Whether or not one choses to label themselves “addicted” to anything (heroine, watching tv, chocolate, exercising), they will remain individuals completely responsible for each of thier unique decisions.

    For a human being, there is no such thing as an “irresistable” urge.

  3. “Addiction” has become a word that gives inanimate substances the power to direct people’s actions, as a way of letting people escape responsibility for their actions. Originally only alcohol and certain hard drugs were supposed to possess this magic power. Then tobacco and marijuana acquired it (though in the eyes of largely disjoint advocacy groups). Now food itself is “addictive,” thus bringing the concept closer to self-destruction through absurdity.

    The case for food being addictive is very strong, actually. Once people start consuming it, they’re dependent on it. If they cease to consume it, they undergo withdrawal symptoms and eventually die.

  4. [INT. DORM ROOM, NIGHT]

    JAKE:

    Hey.. guys.. what do you think of this?

    [JAKE picks up the bong and takes a long hit, blinking his eyes and shaking his head afterward.]

    So check this out.

    Many people resist their cravings for cheeseburgers, right?

    Does it not then follow that many people resist their cravings for cocaine?

    ROOMMATE #1:

    Yeah?

    JAKE:

    So check this: Ergo, cocaine addiction is a myth!

    [JAKE puts the bong down on the empty pizza cartons, gets up and gives a slo-mo high-five to his ROOMMATES.]
    ALL:

    Score!

    [JAKE and his ROOMMATES sit down.]
    ROOMMATE #1:

    Dude, you should so be a philosophy major.

  5. Anon: Yes coke is bad because of what can happen if you take too mucha and the health affects. However, a good deal of prohibitionist arguments are that cocaine, heroin and other drugs cast a spell on you (with just one hit) and you are powerless against the force of addiction.

    garym: The worst thing about food is that you’re adicted at birth. If you don’t have any in weeks you die. Don’t get me started on water.

  6. Mo, the cravings that are induced by cocaine are quantitatively different from normal “I like it, and I want to do more” feelings. When I tried coke, I didn’t feel anything, and was greatly disappointed. But the last thought I had before I went to sleep that night, and the first thought I had when I woke the next morning, was “I want some more.”

    This is quite different from the alcohol, marijuana, caffeine, and chocolate I consume.

    If we are to accept the fact that cocaine acts on the brain the same way food does (a pretty shaky notion, imo), then that’s pretty scary. It would mean that the brain sends out the same signals it sends for things necessary to the continuation of life.

  7. s.m. The point is not that addicition is a myth, the point is that addiction is not an inevitable outcome of drug use and it can be overcome. Cigarettes are far more addictive than cocaine and people quit smoking all the time. The percentage of smokers is going down and it because of more than just deaths.

  8. I’m having a Dr. Demento moment:

    Oh but folks I have been spotted
    with a Big Mac on my breath.
    Stumblin’ into a Col. Sanders
    with a face as white as death.
    I’m afraid someday they’ll find me
    just stretched out on the bed
    with a hand full’a Pringles potator chips
    and a Ding Dong by my head!

    In the daytime I’m Mr Natural
    jus’ as healthy as I can be,
    but at night I’m a junkfood junkie
    good lord have pity on me.

  9. Whoops! The frist line of that stanza should be:

    Oh! But folks lately I have been spotted

    Sorry, I should be stripped of my novelty song fan status.

  10. Grrrrr… make that: “The FIRST line…”

    Hey, Reason! Can’t we get a spell checker on this thing?

  11. “For a human being, there is no such thing as an “irresistable” urge.”

    Yeah well, you just haven’t been to the right strip clubs.

  12. “For a human being, there is no such thing as an “irresistable” urge.”
    How long can you hold your breath?
    But this is hardly on a par with the magic “one exposure and you’re doomed” of the nannys…

    Shirley Knott

  13. i can hold my breath until i pass out.

  14. I can drink till I pass out.

  15. A McDonald’s splurge is “unreasonably dangerous” because it’s a “splurge” of McDonald’s, not because it’s McDonald’s.

  16. A McDonald’s splurge is “unreasonably dangerous” because it’s a “splurge” of McDonald’s, not because it’s McDonald’s.

  17. Anything in outrageous quantities is dangerous.

    Too much water can kill you.

    I fail to see Spurlock’s point. It’s the splurge, not the food.

  18. John Banzhaf causes scientifically measurable changes in my hormone levels. Mere mention of his name is correlated with aggressive behavior.

    If we’re cracking down on steroids we should be cracking down on John Banzhaf.

  19. Anything in outrageous quantities is dangerous.

    Too much water can kill you.

    I fail to see Spurlock’s point. It’s the splurge, not the food.

  20. Just as I suspected all along….FOOD SHOULD BE BANNED!

    I have this fricken disease called hunger…it makes me work in a box 8 hours a day so I can get my fix. I pay rent so I can shower and be somewhat disease free so I can maintain this job in a box…all so I can get my fix.

    I go through all sorts of elaborate rituals to prepare my stuff. When I have friends over…not one of them can resist shoving something in their mouth. We all hang around what an alien would record has the most important room in a house…the kitchen.

    I even eat slain animals for my disease. Can you believe this…I participate in the sacrifice of animals for my lack of control.

    Please help me, I am addicted to eating.

    Once I’m cured of eating, then I can work on sex…maybe one day I’ll be pure. And then maybe one day everyone will love me, even God.

  21. shanep,

    “It’s the splurge, not the food”

    the problem is YOU (or people who share this opinion) won’t be on the jury to decide if ‘Big Food’ should be held liable.

    My law professor says attorneys look for the “marshmallows” among the jury pool during the selection process.

  22. Maybe someone can clarify, but I’m pretty sure that the test subjects had to fast before they were exposed to the food they like. So you’re hungry, and you have a double-whopper with cheese waved in front of your face, thus causing your brain to light up? And this is some great scientific discovery?

    Sniff..sniff.. smells like prohibition.

  23. Seews like shanep is just another dupe of the anti-DHMO lobby.

    Kevin

  24. Meaux/Me:

    “The point is not that addiction is a myth, the point is that addiction is not an inevitable outcome of drug use and it can be overcome.”

    If that’s Mr. Sullum’s point, he should say that rather than the things he does say, though I still take issue. For a statistically significant proportion of cocaine, heroin, alcohol and nicotine users, overcoming addiction or discontinuing frequent use requires quite a bit more than a pep talk and some Ayn Rand audiobooks. Addiction is real and in a great many cases has a physical component. The existence of the nicotine patch demonstrates this neatly. It doesn’t wean smokers off the act of smoking. It weans them off nicotine. Otherwise, what correlation would there be between a piece of wet gauze on your arm and a receding desire to smoke?

    The severity of an addiction and the degree to which a physical dependency exists varies from person to person. I might be able to knock back a pint of bourbon every Saturday night and have no unusual desire at all to drink anything the rest of the week, and man-about-town Jacob Sullum may be able to go months between the snorts of coke that he enjoys on bank holidays and Leap Day. For someone else, though, a few sips of bourbon or a bit of cocaine will send their endocrine system and neural pathways off something nasty and send them off on a binge that won’t stop for days, weeks or worse. This is not, in such cases, a bit of playacting in which someone decides to go on an all-consuming weeklong cocaine jag, kicks it off with that first toot, and stubbornly insists on taking it from there until she or he is roaming the streets at 3AM and fencing car radios to buy more.

    Your interpretation of Mr. Sullum’s squib is charitable. What he wrote is less grounded:

    … Instead of showing that the urge for a cheeseburger is overwhelming, this sort of comparison suggests that the urge for a snort of cocaine is not as powerful as the government would have us believe.

    Prohibition of cocaine and other recreational drugs is wrong, it’s hypocritical and it’s bad policy, but what’s with arguing that the idea of addiction is a crock?

  25. Where does Jacob say addiciton is “a crock”? All that he says is that it is perhaps “not as powerful as the governemnt would have us believe”. I can’t speak for him, but I agree that *if* you are truely addicted, then it can be a very hard thing to kick, regardless of the substance. But our government is being disingenious by claiming that you can get “addicted” with one puff, one snort, one drink, etc.

  26. I think Rick James said it best,

    “Cocaine is a hell of a drug”

  27. How about scanning the brain of John Banzaf and checking his brain’s reaction when a hundred dollar bill is waved in front of him.

  28. At this point, I’m not sure exactly which comments may have been directed to my post, but to expand a bit: My point wasn’t that addiction is a myth, but that the concept has been turned into something meaningless. First, addiction is now perceived as a mechanism by which a substance bypasses your choices and directly takes control of your course of action, just as holding your breath eventually forces you to breathe whether you want to or not. Second, the number of substances to which this power is attributed has grown to the point of absurdity.

    None of this implies that a cocaine addict, or even a habitual overeater, has an easy time of it. But they do have a choice.

  29. My guess is tht it takes A LOT more than a hundred dollar bill to get a rise out of Banzaf … he won’t even criticize a stale Twinky for a hundred bucks.

  30. gryllade,

    I’ve come to distrust government drug propaganda, and put more faith in my own experiences. It was like a button being pushed in my head, and I wasn’t the one in pushing it.

    Bad scene. Never again.

  31. Mo, the cravings that are induced by cocaine are quantitatively different from normal “I like it, and I want to do more” feelings. When I tried coke, I didn’t feel anything, and was greatly disappointed. But the last thought I had before I went to sleep that night, and the first thought I had when I woke the next morning, was “I want some more.”

    Hmmm . . . anecdotal evidence, and no evidence that the feeling was caused by the drug. I wouldn’t be surprised if your reaction was caused by your expectations, shaped at least a bit by . . . guess what? Governmental advertising against drugs. If you expect that one snort might get you hooked, no matter if you want to take cocaine or not, then that might be just what happened. Might not, too; it’s kinda hard to separate the cause from effects in an environment like the real world. But it’s certainly something to think about.

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