We seem to have learned nothing from the long battle against the tobacco industry.
We humans are a funny lot. Our brains aren’t very good at thinking because we evolved under conditions of scarcity. As thinking can consume up to 30% of our blood glucose, robbing muscles of energy that may be needed to flee from predators or engage in extensive foraging, we evolved to do as little thinking as possible. For most of our history as a species, this made a lot of sense.
Therefore the best strategy was to accept assertions from authority figures without question; even if they were wrong, the consequences would be minor. So what if Fred passes on an inferior technique of flint-napping or Mary gives sub-optimal instructions about how best to pluck ripe berries from the bush? So long as the information passed on was good enough, the group would survive. And during most of our evolutionary history our rudimentary tools and skills were sufficient for us to eke out an existence by simply going along with what everyone else was saying and doing.
What this means for us today is that we’re suckers for simple-minded “rules” that tell us what to believe. Once a “rule” is established we defend it blindly and become very agitated when anyone challenges the basis for our belief.
This leads us into all manner of mistakes, many of which have very harmful consequences.
Today most people have forgotten how prevalent tobacco was for several generations. When the narcotic effects of tobacco were first discovered in the late sixteenth century there was a tussle between those wishing to profit by selling the leaves of the plant and those who rightly saw it as a menace. Early seventeenth-century literature is full of references to “the stinking weed” and the noxious smoke resulting from burning tobacco.
By the eighteenth century many of the negative effects of tobacco smoking were known: coughs, increased susceptibility to breathing ailments, and the atrocious burned ash smell that clings to the skin and hair of those who breath in the smoldering weed. It was still a minority pursuit.
But by the twentieth century, thanks to the advent of modern marketing techniques and communications technologies, smoking went mainstream. It became fashionable. Look at any Hollywood movie of the 1940s and you’ll see every character seems to be smoking most of the time. This wasn’t accidental: the tobacco companies intentionally leaned on Hollywood to promote the idea of smoking as not only socially acceptable but as sexy and desirable.
What better way to pick up an attractive woman than to offer her a cancer stick?
By the time governments began to understand the horrific health implications and budgetary costs of all the lung cancer and throat cancer and mouth cancer and emphysema and heart disease, people were firmly wedded to the belief that smoking was natural, normal, and basically a human right.
So the early anti-smoking campaigns were strongly resisted not only by the purveyors of tobacco products but also by ordinary people who genuinely believed that their freedom was being eroded. To be a smoker was to be socially acceptable, to have always an easy way to break the ice among colleagues and strangers, to be part of the majority.
Suggestions that smokers should be made to smoke outside buildings in order to spare their non-smoking colleagues from having to inhale carcinogens, were decried as “shaming smokers.” After all, smoking was natural and it was therefore Very Bad to shame smokers. Even if they were harming their non-smoking friends who would ultimately also bear the financial cost of all those smoking-related diseases.
In short, the attitude was that people should be allowed to self-harm and impose huge financial costs on other people because anything else was an attack on their inalienable rights and constituted unacceptable shaming.
It took fifty years to make progress in reducing rates of smoking and thus begin to reduce rates of smoking-related diseases.
Sadly, as society slowly began to accept the idea that smoking wasn’t in fact a clever thing to do and that “shaming smokers” wasn’t the most terrible crime known to humanity, we all started getting fat.
Today, more than 85% of US citizens are fat, obese, morbidly obese, or hyper obese. Several European countries aren’t far behind, with Hungary and the UK leading the way. Not surprisingly, half of all health care spending is now consumed by obesity-related diseases. In other words, people with ailments that are not lifestyle-related are having to wait longer and receive less treatment because so many people are self-harming and clogging up the healthcare system.
Worse still, the massive costs of obesity are passed on to everyone including those who make more adequate lifestyle choices. So we’re all paying more for today’s fashionable mistake, just as we did with smoking not so long ago.
Today, if you mention the fact that being fat carries serious health risks, you’ll be told you are “fat shaming.”
It’s Politically Incorrect to make the obvious point that it is deeply unhealthy to lead a sedentary lifestyle while simultaneously consuming too much of the wrong sorts of food.
Today, just as with the smoking of yesteryear, we’ve normalized the abnormal.
We’re told we should celebrate fatness because it’s an “equally valid body choice” as though there were no health and cost consequences. Not surprisingly, the food industry has been avidly promoting these absurd ideas because like the tobacco companies of yore they don’t want anyone interfering with their highly profitable but ultimately lethal product streams.
Not surprisingly, the food industry is using many of the same tactics that were used successfully for so long by Big Tobacco. First in line is the “scientific proof” that their products aren’t really responsible for the harm they cause:
“You can still get fat by eating normally; it’s all genetic / environmental / magic / not your fault / absolutely not anything whatsoever to do with cramming yourself with our junk products while being inactive!”
Then there’s the “whatabout” ploy:
“But whatabout the study that proved you can be obese but still be healthy?”
But who sponsored the study? And remember, the parameters were suitably narrow. You can always find someone who’s smoked for 60 years and not died of cancer. But so what? They’re still coughing their guts out every morning, still feel like crap, still stink like a month-old ashtray, and still get the shakes if they don’t get their next nicotine fix in time.
Likewise you can always create a study to find someone who’s obese yet can still walk 100 meters without having a heart attack. But so what? They’ll still suffer bone fractures, have an aching back, have all manner of gastro-intestinal problems, have clotted arteries, and be on a perpetual cycle of sugar-high-to-sugar-crash.
The current Politically Correct trend to show women’s clothing on fat models isn’t an example of being “woke” or “accepting of all body images.” It’s no different from Hollywood movies showing everyone smoking in every scene. It’s a mindless denial of the inevitable health damage that results from doing bad things to your body. It’s not clever to “be accepting of different body shapes.” It’s idiotic.
Because the health damage and the social cost is huge.
We’re decades away from anyone being ready to hear this message, of course. Governments are still behind the curve when it comes to grappling with the health implications, though in Europe several countries are looking for ways to mitigate the epidemic and are trying to learn the lessons from the long hard struggle against the powerful tobacco industry.
The struggle against the food companies will be longer and more difficult because unlike cancer sticks, food is an essential component of life. And the food companies understand how to manipulate us in a wide variety of ways, from packaging to adverts to adding salt and fat and sugar to everything in order to trigger our tastebuds and keep us addicted.
And the food companies know how to exploit our simple-mindedness and use social media to give us sound-bites. Someone thinks we should exercise more? Remember the guy who died forty years ago because he liked to run every day!! Someone thinks obesity is harmful? What about anorexia and bulemia!!!
Just as with Russian troll factories pumping brainless memes into Trump and Brexit supporters, the big food companies likewise aren’t slouches when it comes to shaping public attitudes and beliefs. And they’re doing it because they want to protect their revenue streams. They don’t care about our health; they care only about making the quarterly numbers.
So unfortunately we’ll continue to get larger and larger, our heath will grow worse and worse, and all the time the Politically Correct brigade will be supporting the large food corporations by screaming “fat shamer!” at anyone who dares to point out that obesity and indolence are not in fact inalienable rights, nor the natural condition for human beings.
Perhaps my grand-children will see the day when people look back on the present and ask, “what the f*ck were they thinking?” I have no expectation whatsoever that I shall live so long.