A month ago, the NYC Department of Health launched a new campaign on portion sizes–Cut Your Portions. Cut Your Risk–featuring ads on subways encouraging New Yorkers to trim their portions to reduce their risk of health problems. As I previously wrote , the city’s health department is very proactive in fighting obesity and other public health issues, and this campaign is urging New Yorkers to be more aware of portion sizes when deciding what to eat or drink. The campaign makes perfect sense at a time when food portions have increased and so have rates of obesity.
Not surprisingly, the campaign drew criticism from food industry groups selling the very foods the city’s health department is suggesting we limit. As reported in Crains, the American Beverage Association, called the ads “scare tactics.” They further indicated that they are offering “real solutions” including smaller portioned containers and calorie labels on the front of the package.
While several smaller sized containers have indeed been introduced, soft drinks marketed for individual consumption are still much too big. For example, 7-Eleven’s “Double Gulp” soda is 64-ounces, contains nearly 800 calories and 50 teaspoons of sugar, if you don’t add too much ice. While this soda is marketed for one person, it is really sized to be shared among eight people. Further, while the standard Coca-Cola bottle found in vending machines was once 6.5-ounces, today it is 20-ounces.
The Center for Consumer Freedom also took offense to the campaign. They wrote “By now you’ve probably heard of the latest round of food-fear ads from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. … the City now implies that larger sodas and cheeseburgers are causing amputations, and people to ride obesity scooters.” They further indicate that “The ads ignore decades of research into the causes of obesity, choosing instead to confuse correlation with causation. In that spirit, we tried our hand at irrationally demonizing products with the horror of upward-sloping lines.”
As reported in the New York Times, the city’s health department explained its approach with the following statement: “When science tells us that smoking does not cause lung cancer or that obesity is not driving an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, we will stop depicting those facts in ads. Until then we are going to accurately convey the facts in our advertising — advertising that has helped to successfully reduce smoking in New York City to a historic low of 14 percent, saving thousands of lives.”
Recently, in the Huffington Post, Sandra Mullin and Nandita Murukutla from the World Lung Foundation wrote a compelling article “Hard Hitting Messages That Work: NYC’s Public Health Education Campaign” in response to the recent series of stories in the New York Times questioning the city’s efforts to combat obesity with a series of hard hitting messages. Their conclusion: “New York City’s efforts are grounded in rigorous message testing and a logical premise that years of deceitful marketing cannot be undone with feel-good messaging. To stem obesity and the tobacco epidemic, health departments need to build on what’s worked whether it is palatable or not. Good medicine is often hard to swallow.”
While the ads may make you look twice and it may not be pleasant to view (i.e. an amputee in a wheelchair), they do make one take notice of potential health implications of obesity and overeating.
The NYC health department has unveiled other such public health campaigns , and it appears that they may be working. Smoking has declined in New York City and so have rates of childhood obesity in NYC. I applaud the health department for its efforts in fighting to improve the public health of New Yorkers and hope other health departments around the country follow New York’s lead.