What if we regulated junk food the way we do alcohol?

Los Angeles Times

Junk food is everywhere. We’re eating way too much of it. And we’re getting fat. Most of us know what we’re doing and yet we do it anyway.

So here’s a suggestion offered by two researchers at the Rand Corp.:  Why not take a lesson from alcohol control policies and apply them to where food is sold and how it’s displayed?

“Many policy measures to control the obesity epidemic assume that people consciously and rationally choose what and how much they eat and therefore focus on providing information and more access to healthier foods,” note Dr. Deborah A. Cohen and Lila Rabinovich of Rand.  (Yes, and tell that to the Wheat Thins box in my kitchen trash, emptied last night in a feeding frenzy.)

“In contrast,” the authors continue, “many regulations that do not assume people make rational choices have been successfully applied to control alcohol, a substance -- like food -- of which immoderate consumption leads to serious health problems.”


The paper, published in the CDC’s “Preventing Chronic Disease,” references studies of people’s behavior with food and alcohol and results of alcohol restrictions, then lists five regulations that the authors think might be promising if applied to junk foods. Among them:

Density restrictions: licenses to sell alcohol aren’t handed out willy nilly to all comers but are allotted based on the number of places in an area that already sell alcohol. These make alcohol less easy to get and reduce the number of psychological cues to drink that people encounter as they go about their lives.

In a similar way, the authors say, being presented with junky food stimulates our desire to eat it. So why not limit the density of food outlets, particularly ones that sell food rich in empty calories? And why not limit sale of food in places that aren’t primarily food stores (think chocolate bars at checkout counters in places like bookstores and hardware stores.)

Display and sales restrictions: California has a rule prohibiting alcohol displays too near the cash registers in gas stations, the authors write, and in most places you can’t buy alcohol at drive-through facilities. At supermarkets, food companies pay to have their wares in places where they are easily seen. One could banish junky food to the back of the store and behind counters and ban them from  the shelves at checkout lines, currently heavy on candy bars and potato chips and other snack items. Prohibit drive-throughs. You’d have to get out of your car to go get the fries and burgers and shakes.


The other measures are to restrict portion sizes, to tax and prohibit special price deals for  junk foods; and to place warning labels on the products. You can read the entire article at this website.

Measures like these can work, the authors argue, and point to the Temperance movement of the 19th century as an example. The movement attacked drinking through an array of measures: reduced numbers of taverns serving alcohol, subsidization of alcohol-free taverns, discouraging alcohol in the workplace and passing out lots of information about the evils of the demon drink. Alcohol consumption dropped in half between 1830 and 1840.

That’s alcohol. But food?  “Compared with mortality attributed to alcohol consumption, death rates attributable to overconsumption of food and poor diet are considerably higher,” the authors write.