A Lancet Commission Report released this week calls for a global campaign to combat obesity, malnutrition, and climate change. The report, The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change, claims these problems share a common cause and, hence, may be fixed with a common solution.
The concept of a "syndemic"—basically, two or more related pandemics—is pretty novel. So is tying climate change to both the overconsumption and underconsumption of calories. But the solution the authors propose will sound frustratingly familiar. In short, their big fix is to treat food companies like tobacco companies and tax meats and sugary food and drink.
Some members of the media love the report. A Vox piece, which reads like a combination press release/op-ed, eats up the report, quotes several supporters, including Marion Nestle, and ignores any and all critics. It even closes with a call to embrace the report's assault on large food producers: "It's about time that changed."
Some things in the report jump right out. For example, the article doesn't waste any time making some rather astonishing claims. For example, the third sentence argues that climate change is a pandemic. (The World Health Organization defines a pandemic as "the worldwide spread of a new disease.") A previous Lancet publication argued that physical inactivity—e.g., sitting on your couch habitually—is also a pandemic.
Also noteworthy is the fact there are nearly as many glowing references to food taxes in the report (42) as there are authors of the report (43).
The report authors pin many of the causes of their so-called syndemic on two things: the production and consumption of meat and consumption of "ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks."
The report authors, for example, hail Mexico's national soda tax, Chile's backwards food policies, and "the progress seen in New York City during Michael Bloomberg's years as mayor," which, recall, were notable chiefly for the mayor's systemic attack on food freedom.
The report warns about "the urgent need for a fundamental change in today's governance systems." In other words, capitalism is bad. "Arguably, the most important challenge is considering and redefining the fundamental goals of these systems." That means targeting "the structures, practices, and beliefs that underpin capitalism in its present form[.]"
Going forward, this means urging businesses to give "social and environmental aspects of corporate performance… greater prominence, even equal to financial performance" and governments to tax unhealthy foods. It also means "taxes on unhealthy foods, front-of-pack [warning] labelling, targets on the content of nutrients of concern in processed foods, restriction of unhealthy food marketing to children, and healthy school food policies."
The report stops short (as far as I can tell) of calling explicitly for a meat tax, though the authors do call for "local solutions that engage people [to] reduce meat consumption," "promot[ing] a plant-based diet" and an end to farm subsidies—the latter is something I've long supported—so that consumers "pay the true costs of… meat." Outside of the report itself, though, its sponsors clearly believe it calls for "reducing red meat consumption through taxes."
Ultimately, the report concludes with a call for a "global treaty for food systems based on the [global tobacco control] model."
That's all bad. But the report itself isn't all bad.
"The fossil fuel and food industries that are responsible for driving The Global Syndemic receive more than $5 trillion in annual subsidies from governments," it notes. "The ongoing pattern of transfers of large amounts of public money to corporations in the form of subsidies and tax breaks… needs to change."
But such moments of clarity are rare. Which brings to mind the general disconnect between those who cherish liberty and the public health community.
"Most people start with the naive assumption that when matters of public health are on the table, claims for individual liberty normally must give way," Richard Epstein wrote in a seminal 2004 article on public health and food policymaking. "The usual thinking about this subject is that preserving the public health is an essential state function that cries out for the use of coercive powers."
In a world filled with more and more food choices, my only hope is that those choices—and the people who make them—grow and thrive. Given a choice between governments forcing people to alter their diets in order to slightly prolong miserable lives or government staying out of the way and people living slightly shorter but happier lives, I'll take the latter every time.