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The Situation of Eating – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2008

Monday’s Boston Globe had a nice article, titled “Environmental cues affect how much you eat,” by Judy Foreman on the Situation of Eating. We’ve included the introduction below.

* * *

Next time you sit down to dinner, dim the lights – but not too much. Both bright light and dim light may make you eat more. Watch the background music, too. If it’s too fast, you’ll eat fast, and therefore more; too slow and you’ll keep eating. And think small for plates – a portion that looks skimpy on a dinner plate looks ample on a salad plate.

The more that researchers study obesity, the more they are finding that portion control is key to successful weight loss. Often, people think they’re eating much less than really are. And these perceptions can be influenced, often outside our conscious awareness, by environmental cues, including lights and music.

* * *

The article also includes this situationist gem of a quote by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think:

“The big danger . . . is that we all think we are too smart to be influenced by environmental cues. . . . The good news is that it is very easy to reverse these cues and to just as mindlessly eat less.”

* * *

To access the entire article, including tips on what might be done to influence the situation that is otherwise influencing us, click here.

* * *

Below is six-minute interview of Brian Wansink in which he discusses several situational factors influencing what we eat and how much we enjoy it.

For a a more complete description and analysis of the situation of eating, see the law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion.

In case you missed Morgan’s Spurlock’ 2004 Academy-Award-Nominated documentary, Supersize Me, which explores some of the situational sources of obesity, you can watch the 100-minute movie below.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For those interested, here is a list of related Situationist posts to date: “The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15’,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,” The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,”The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”


Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Life, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Our Situation Is What We Eat

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 20, 2008

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Medical Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 15, 2008

Harvard Veritas Image by neutralSurfaceGardiner Harris and Benedict Carey wrote an article in last week’s New York Times includes, titled Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay.“ In it , they describe yet another instance of industry influence over what research and manipulation of the marketplace of ideas. We’ve included a few excerpts from the story below.

* * *

A world-renowned Harvard child psychiatrist whose work has helped fuel an explosion in the use of powerful antipsychotic medicines in children earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but for years did not report much of this income to university officials, according to information given Congressional investigators.

By failing to report income, the psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Biederman, and a colleague in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Timothy E. Wilens, may have violated federal and university research rules designed to police potential conflicts of interest, according to Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Some of their research is financed by government grants.

Like Dr. Biederman, Dr. Wilens belatedly reported earning at least $1.6 million from 2000 to 2007, and another Harvard colleague, Dr. Thomas Spencer, reported earning at least $1 million after being pressed by Mr. Grassley’s investigators. But even these amended disclosures may understate the researchers’ outside income because some entries contradict payment information from drug makers, Mr. Grassley found.

In one example, Dr. Biederman reported no income from Johnson & Johnson for 2001 in a disclosure report filed with the university. When asked to check again, he said he received $3,500. But Johnson & Johnson told Mr. Grassley that it paid him $58,169 in 2001 . . . .

The Harvard group’s consulting arrangements with drug makers were already controversial because of the researchers’ advocacy of unapproved uses of psychiatric medicines in children.

In an e-mailed statement, Dr. Biederman said, “My interests are solely in the advancement of medical treatment through rigorous and objective study,” and he said he took conflict-of-interest policies “very seriously.” Drs. Wilens and Spencer said in e-mailed statements that they thought they had complied with conflict-of-interest rules.

John Burklow, a spokesman for the National Institutes of Health, said: “If there have been violations of N.I.H. policy — and if research integrity has been compromised — we will take all the appropriate action within our power to hold those responsible accountable. This would be completely unacceptable behavior, and N.I.H. will not tolerate it.”

* * *

Alyssa Kneller, a Harvard spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement: “The information released by Senator Grassley suggests that, in certain instances, each doctor may have failed to disclose outside income from pharmaceutical companies and other entities that should have been disclosed.”

* * *

Dr. Biederman is one of the most influential researchers in child psychiatry and is widely admired for focusing the field’s attention on its most troubled young patients. Although many of his studies are small and often financed by drug makers, his work helped to fuel a controversial 40-fold increase from 1994 to 2003 in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder, which is characterized by severe mood swings, and a rapid rise in the use of antipsychotic medicines in children. The Grassley investigation did not address research quality.

Doctors have known for years that antipsychotic drugs, sometimes called major tranquilizers, can quickly subdue children. But youngsters appear to be especially susceptible to the weight gain and metabolic problems caused by the drugs, and it is far from clear that the medications improve children’s lives over time, experts say.

In the last 25 years, drug and device makers have displaced the federal government as the primary source of research financing, and industry support is vital to many university research programs. But as corporate research executives recruit the brightest scientists, their brethren in marketing departments have discovered that some of these same scientists can be terrific pitchmen.

pharmaceutical - istockTo protect research integrity, the National Institutes of Health require researchers to report to universities earnings of $10,000 or more per year, for instance, in consulting money from makers of drugs also studied by the researchers in federally financed trials. Universities manage financial conflicts by requiring that the money be disclosed to research subjects, among other measures.

* * *

Universities ask professors to report their conflicts but do almost nothing to verify the accuracy of these voluntary disclosures.

“It’s really been an honor system thing,” said Dr. Robert Alpern, dean of Yale School of Medicine. “If somebody tells us that a pharmaceutical company pays them $80,000 a year, I don’t even know how to check on that.”

* * *

In the past decade, Dr. Biederman and his colleagues have promoted the aggressive diagnosis and drug treatment of childhood bipolar disorder, a mood problem once thought confined to adults. They have maintained that the disorder was underdiagnosed in children and could be treated with antipsychotic drugs, medications invented to treat schizophrenia.

Other researchers have made similar assertions. As a result, pediatric bipolar diagnoses and antipsychotic drug use in children have soared. Some 500,000 children and teenagers were given at least one prescription for an antipsychotic in 2007, including 20,500 under 6 years of age, according to Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefit manager.

Few psychiatrists today doubt that bipolar disorder can strike in the early teenage years, or that many of the children being given the diagnosis are deeply distressed.

“I consider Dr. Biederman a true visionary in recognizing this illness in children,” said Susan Resko, director of the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation, “and he’s not only saved many lives but restored hope to thousands of families across the country.”

Longtime critics of the group see its influence differently. “They have given the Harvard imprimatur to this commercial experimentation on children,” said Vera Sharav, president and founder of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a patient advocacy group.

* * *

Controlling for bias is especially important in such work, given that the scale is subjective, and raters often depend on reports from parents and children, several top psychiatrists said.

* * *

“The price we pay for these kinds of revelations is credibility, and we just can’t afford to lose any more of that in this field,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which finances psychiatric studies. “In the area of child psychiatry in particular, we know much less than we should, and we desperately need research that is not influenced by industry money.”

* * *

The entire article is here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of University Research,” The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’ . . . .,” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “Industry-Funded Research – Part II,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Education, Food and Drug Law, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Economic Journal Watch – Table of Contents

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 8, 2008

The latest issue of Economic Journal Watch includes several pieces of interest to Situationist readers:

Table of Contents with links to articles (pdf)

Download and Print Entire May 2008 Issue (134 pages, 1.8 MB)

Posted in Abstracts, Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law, Table of Contents | Leave a Comment »

The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 30, 2008

image by by SuperFantasticAnyone following the tobacco industry revelations of the early 1990s knows about the industry’s diabolical strategies for influencing science. More specifically, as Stanton Glantz has written, the industry “encouraged scientific research to refute the scientific evidence about tobacco, to perpetuate controversy about the health effects of tobacco, and to provide results that could be used to respond to adverse publicity.” What fewer people realize is that at least some cigarette manufacturers may still be engaged in some of their old practices — influencing the situation of research. That is the possibility raised in Gardner Harris’s article last week in the New York Times, “Cigarette Company Paid for Lung Cancer Study,” excerpted below.

* * *

In October 2006, Dr. Claudia Henschke of Weill Cornell Medical College jolted the cancer world with a study saying that 80 percent of lung cancer deaths could be prevented through widespread use of CT scans.

Small print at the end of the study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, noted that it had been financed in part by a little-known charity called the Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention & Treatment. A review of tax records by The New York Times shows that the foundation was underwritten almost entirely by $3.6 million in grants from the parent company of the Liggett Group, maker of Liggett Select, Eve, Grand Prix, Quest and Pyramid cigarette brands.

The foundation got four grants from the Vector Group, Liggett’s parent, from 2000 to 2003.

Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen, editor in chief of the medical journal, said he was surprised. “In the seven years that I’ve been here, we have never knowingly published anything supported by” a cigarette maker, Dr. Drazen said.

An increasing number of universities do not accept grants from cigarette makers, and a growing awareness of the influence that companies can have over research outcomes, even when donations are at arm’s length, has led nearly all medical journals and associations to demand that researchers accurately disclose financing sources.

Dr. Henschke was the foundation president, and her longtime collaborator, Dr. David Yankelevitz, was its secretary-treasurer. Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of Weill Cornell, and Arthur J. Mahon, vice chairman of the college board of overseers, were directors.

Vector issued a press release on Dec. 4, 2000, saying that it intended to give $2.4 million to Weill Cornell to finance Dr. Henschke’s research. Articles in Business Week and USA Today mentioned the gift. No mention was made of the foundation, begun so hastily that its 2000 tax return stated “not yet organized.”

Paul Caminiti, a Vector spokesman, confirmed that the company donated $3.6 million to the foundation over three years. The company “had no control or influence over the research,” he said.

Prominent cancer researchers and journal editors, told of the foundation by The Times, said they were stunned to learn of Dr. Henschke’s association with Liggett. Cigarette makers are so reviled among cancer advocates and researchers that any association with the industry can taint researchers and bar their work from being published.

“If you’re using blood money, you need to tell people you’re using blood money,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. The society gave Dr. Henschke more than $100,000 in grants from 2004 to 2007, money it would not have provided had it known of Liggett’s grants, Dr. Brawley said.

In an e-mail message, Drs. Henschke and Yankelevitz wrote, “It seems clear that you are trying to suggest that Cornell was trying to conceal this gift, which is entirely false.”

“The gift was announced publicly, the advocacy and public health community knew about it, it is quite easy to look it up on the Internet, its board has independent Cornell faculty on it, and it was fully disclosed to grant funding organizations,” they wrote, adding that the Vector grant represented a small part of the study’s overall cost. The foundation no longer accepts grants from tobacco companies, they wrote.

In the Vector press release, Dr. Henschke was quoted as saying that, thanks to the Vector grants, “we have raised the initial funding needed to support this important research and data collection on the effectiveness of spiral CT screening.”

Dr. Gotto said in an interview that Dr. Henschke, Dr. Yankelevitz and another colleague set up the foundation initially without the university’s approval, which he said faculty members are allowed to do. He and Mr. Mahon joined the board some weeks or months after its creation to ensure that the Vector grants were handled correctly, he said.

“If we had been approached, we would not have set up the foundation,” Dr. Gotto said. “We would have accepted the gift directly. We think we behaved honorably. There was no attempt to set up a foundation to hide tobacco money.”

Days earlier, Andrew Ben Ami, assistant secretary of the foundation, said in an interview he would not disclose the source of the charity’s financing at the request of the university.

In another interview before Dr. Gotto agreed to speak, Mr. Mahon, another foundation director, said he did not know the source of the funds.

Dr. Robert C. Young, chancellor of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and chairman of the Board of Scientific Advisors of the National Cancer Institute, said he had never heard of the Vector grants. “As someone who really hung around the inner sanctum of cancer research, I have never heard anybody — anybody — everImage by by Bhima Bramantika say anything about this,” Dr. Young said.

Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine and the author of a book about conflicts of interest, said he believed that Weill Cornell had created the foundation to hide its receipt of money from a cigarette company. “You have to ask yourself the question, ‘Why did the tobacco company want to support her research?’ ” Dr. Kassirer said. “They want to show that lung cancer is not so bad as everybody thinks because screening can save people; and that’s outrageous.”

* * *“She’s the biggest advocate for widespread spiral CT screening,” said Dr. Paul Bunn, a lung cancer expert and executive director of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. “And now her research is tainted.”

Corporate financing can have subtle effects on research and lead to unconscious bias. Studies have shown that sponsored research tends to reach conclusions that favor the sponsor, which is why disclosure is encouraged. The tobacco industry has a long history of underwriting research — sometimes through independent-sounding foundations — to make cigarettes seem less dangerous.

* * *

Universities are responsible for policing conflicts of interest and, in many cases, the required disclosures of their faculty. But Weill Cornell shared in the proceeds of Dr. Henschke’s patent and pending patents, and university officials were on the foundation board.

“We have a very strict oversight policy” for conflicts of interest, Dr. Gotto of Weill Cornell said. He dismissed any suggestion that the university could not police and benefit from faculty members’ financial deals.

But Dr. Kassirer said, “The problem is that universities, because they’re so conflicted themselves, ignore the conflicts of interest of their faculty.”

Legislation being considered in Congress would require drug and device makers to post registries of payments to doctors.

An increasing number of doctors and institutions are setting up foundations to accept money from companies without having to disclose its source, said Dr. Murray Kopelow, chief executive of the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education.

“This is the third time in the past few weeks that one of these has been identified to us,” said Dr. Kopelow, whose organization is investigating how widespread the practice is.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “Industry-Funded Research – Part II,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law | 1 Comment »

The Situation of our Food – Part IV

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 17, 2008

Michael Pollan has made a career studying and writing about the situation of food. We in include his wonderful TED lecture, “The Omnivore’s Next Dilemma,” from last month below. “What if human consciousness isn’t the end-all and be-all of Darwinism? What if we are all just pawns in corn’s clever strategy game, the ultimate prize of which is world domination? Author Michael Pollan asks us to see things from a plant’s-eye view — to consider the possibility that nature isn’t opposed to culture, that biochemistry rivals intellect as a survival tool. By merely shifting our perspective, he argues, we can heal the Earth. Who’s the more sophisticated species now?”

Pollan’s latest book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” came out in January. We’ve posted his website’s summary below.

* * *

Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food - Book Cover

Food. There’s plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it?

Because most of what we’re consuming today is not food, and how we’re consuming it — in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone — is not really eating. Instead of food, we’re consuming “edible foodlike substances” — no longer the products of nature but of food science. Many of them come packaged with health claims that should be our first clue they are anything but healthy. In the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion. The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.

But if real food — the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food — stands in need of defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other. Both stand to gain much from widespread confusion about what to eat, a question that for most of human history people have been able to answer without expert help. Yet the professionalization of eating has failed to make Americans healthier. Thirty years of official nutritional advice has only made us sicker and fatter while ruining countless numbers of meals.

Pollan proposes a new (and very old) answer to the question of what we should eat that comes down to seven simple but liberating words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. By urging us to once again eat food, he challenges the prevailing nutrient-by-nutrient approach — what he calls nutritionism — and proposes an alternative way of eating that is informed by the traditions and ecology of real, well-grown, unprocessed food. Our personal health, he argues, cannot be divorced from the health of the food chains of which we are part.

In Defense of Food shows us how, despite the daunting dietary landscape Americans confront in the modern supermarket, we can escape the Western diet and, by doing so, most of the chronic diseases that diet causes. We can relearn which foods are healthy, develop simple ways to moderate our appetites, and return eating to its proper context — out of the car and back to the table. Michael Pollan’s bracing and eloquent manifesto shows us how we can start making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives, enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy, and bring pleasure back to eating.

* * *

From the book, here are Pollan’s twelve commandments for the serious eater:

1. “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

2. “Avoid foods containing ingredients you can’t pronounce.”

3. “Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot.”

4. “Avoid food products that carry health claims.”

5. “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.”

6. “Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmers’ market or CSA.”

7. “Pay more, eat less.”

8. “Eat a wide variety of species.”

9. “Eat food from animals that eat grass.”

10. “Cook, and if you can, grow some of your own food.”

11. “Eat meals and eat them only at tables.”

12. “Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.”

* * *

For related Situationist posts, go to “The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,” and “The Situation of Our Food – Part III.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Life, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Social Networks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 3, 2008

nicholas-christakis-from-edge.jpgNicholas Christakis describes his research with James Fowler on social networks, and how he came to that research, on Edge. We have posted some excerpts from the fascinating video and transcript below.

* * *

There is a well-known example in evolutionary biology about whether the eye was designed, or is “just so” because it evolved and arose for a reason. How could this incredibly complicated thing come into being? It seems to serve an incredibly complicated purpose, and the eye is often used in debates about evolution precisely because it is so complex and seems to serve such a specialized and critical function.

For me, social networks are like the eye. They are incredibly complex and beautiful, and looking at them begs the question of why they exist, and why they come to pass. Do we need a kind of just-so story to explain them? Do they just happen to be there, for no particular reason? Or do they serve some purpose — some ontological and also pragmatic purpose?

Along with my collaborator James Fowler, I have been wrestling with the questions of where social networks come from, what purpose they serve, what rules they follow, and what they mean for our lives. The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.

In social networks, there is an interdigitation between the higher order structure and the lower order structure, which is remarkable, and which has been animating our research for the last five or ten years. I started by studying very simple dyadic networks. A pair of individuals is the simplest type of network one can imagine. And I became curious about networks and network effects in my capacity as a doctor who takes care of people who are terminally ill.

* * *

For example, one day I met with a pretty typical scenario: a woman who was dying and her daughter who was caring for her. The mother had been sick for quite a while and she had dementia. The daughter was exhausted from years of caring for her, and in the course of caring, she became so exhausted that her husband also became sick from his wife’s preoccupation with her mother. One day I got a call from the husband’s best friend, with his permission, to ask me about him. So here we have the following cascade: parent to daughter, daughter to husband, and husband to friend. That is four people — a cascade of effects through the network. And I became sort of obsessed with the notion that these little dyads of people could agglomerate to form larger structures.

Nowadays, most people have these very distinct visual images of networks because in the last ten years they have become almost a part of pop culture. But social networks were studied in this kind of way beginning in the 1950s . . . . But all these were still very small-scale networks; networks of three people or 30 people — that kind of ballpark. But we are of course connected to each other through vastly larger, more complex, more beautiful networks of people. Networks of thousands of individuals, in fact. These networks are in a way living, breathing entities that reproduce, and that have a kind of memory. Things flow through them and they have a purpose and can achieve different things from what their constituent individuals can. And they are very difficult to understand.

This is how I began to think about social networks about seven years ago. At the time when I was thinking about this, I moved from the University of Chicago to Harvard, and was introduced to my colleague James Fowler, another social scientist, who was also beginning to think about different kinds of network problems from the perspective of political science. He was interested in problems of collective action — how groups of people are organized, how the action of one individual can influence the actions of other individuals. He was also interested in basic problems like altruism. Why would I be altruistic toward somebody else? What purpose does altruism serve? In fact, I think that altruism is a key predicate to the formation of social networks because it serves to stabilize social ties. If I were constantly violent towards other people, or never reciprocated anything good, the network would disintegrate, all the ties would be cut. Some level of altruism is required for networks to emerge.

istock-social-network.jpgSo we can begin to think about combining a broad variety of ideas. Some stretch back to Plato, and thinking about well-ordered societies, the origins of good and evil, how people form collectives, how a state might be organized. In fact, we can begin to revisit ideas engaged by Rousseau and other philosophers on man in a state of nature. How can we transcend anarchy? Anarchy can be conceived of as a kind of social network phenomenon, and society and social order can also be conceived of as a social network phenomenon.

* * *

We are thus at a moment where a leap forward in the methodology for the study of social networks has been made, firstly by building on past work. But secondly, we are at a moment where — because of modern telecommunications technologies and other innovations — people are leaving digital traces of where they are, who they are interacting with, and what they are saying or even thinking. All of these types of data can be captured by the deployment of what I call “massive passive” technologies and used to engage social science questions in a way that our predecessors could only dream of. We have vast amounts of data that can be reapplied to investigate fundamental questions about social organization and about morality and other concerns that have perplexed us forever.

We have had advances in methods, we have had advances in data. We have also had advances in ideas. People are beginning to think more creatively about what it means to have these kinds of higher-order structures. Since the late 1990s and into the 2000s science more generally has been engaged in what I call the “assembly project” of modern science. . . .

Neuroscientists are beginning to think: okay, well, we understand a lot about neurons, but how do they interconnect to form brains? Geneticists are saying: at the end of the day, we will have understood all 25,000 (approximately) human genes, and then what? How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? How do we reassemble all of the genes and understand how they interact with each other in space and across time? We have seen the recent birth of a new field of biology called systems biology, which seeks to put the parts back together.

And similarly, in social science, there is an increasing interest in the same kind of phenomenon. . . .

* * *

Understanding all of this is what drives me and James Fowler to death right now. And as we have been thinking about it, we have come up with some initial simple ideas, and some initial intriguing and very novel empirical observations. The simple ideas are the following: it is critical when you think of networks to think about their dynamics. A lot of times, people fail to understand networks because they focus on the statics. They think about topology; they think about the architecture of the network. They think about how people are connected, which is of course incredibly important and not easy to understand either. While on the one hand the topology can be understood or seen as fixed or existing, on the other hand this topology is itself mutable and changing and intriguing, and the origin of this topology and its change is itself a difficult thing.

But here is something else: Once you have recognized that there is a topology, the next thing you must understand is that there can be a contagion as well — a kind of process of flow through the network. Things move through it, and this has a different set of scientific underpinnings altogether. Understanding how things flow through the network is a different challenge from understanding how networks form or evolve. It is the difference between the formation and the operation of the network, or the difference between its structure and its function. Or, if you see the network as a kind of super-organism, it is the difference between the anatomy and the physiology of the super-organism, of the network. You need to understand both. And they both interconnect and affect each other, just as in our bodies our anatomy and our physiology are interrelated.

This is what James and I are tackling right now; we have started with several projects that seek to understand the processes of contagion, and we have also begun a body of work looking at the processes of network formation — how structure starts and why it changes. We have made some empirical discoveries about the nature of contagion within networks. And also, in the latter case, with respect to how networks arise, we imagine that the formation of networks obeys certain fundamental biological, genetic, physiological, sociological, and technological rules.

* * *

We are interested not in biological contagion, but in social contagion. One possible mechanism is that I observe you and you begin to display certain behaviors that I then copy. For example, you might start running and then I might start running. Or you might invite me to go running with you. Or you might start eating certain fatty foods and I might start copying that behavior and eat fatty foods. Or you might take me with you to restaurants where I might eat fatty foods. What spreads from person to person is a behavior, and it is the behavior that we both might exhibit that then contributes to our changes in body size. So, the spread of behaviors from person to person might cause or underlie the spread of obesity.

A completely different mechanism would be for there to be not a spread of behaviors, but a spread of norms. I look at the people around me and they are gaining weight. This changes my idea, consciously or subconsciously, about what is an acceptable body size. People around me who start gaining weight reset my expectations about what it means to be overweight or thin, and this is what spreads from person to person: a norm. It is a kind of meme (but it is not quite a meme) that goes from person to person.

In our empirical work so far, we have found substantial evidence for the latter mechanism, the spread of norms, more than the spread of behaviors. It is a bit technical, but I will tell you why we have some evidence for norms. In our empirical work on obesity, we found two lines of suggestive evidence for a spread of norms. The first line of evidence caught everyone’s attention, and frankly it caught our attention when we noted it. It showed that it did not matter how far away your social contacts were; if they gained weight, it caused you to gain weight. This was the case whether your friend lived next door, ten miles away, 100 miles away, or 1000 miles away. Geographic distance did not matter to the obesity effect, the interpersonal effect.

Another finding from looking at the spread of smoking behavior was that if you stop smoking, it makes me stop smoking and there is a spread of smoking cessation behavior, which itself is something we are investigating. Pertinent for the present purpose, however, is that, after taking into account the spread of smoking cessation behavior, it did not efface the spread of obesity. In other words, accounting for one particular behavior, smoking cessation (which is known to increase weight at the individual level), did not undo the spread-of -obesity effect. This is an example in which it is not a spread of a behavior that causes the spread of obesity. This finding, coupled with the finding regarding the lack of decay with geographic distance, suggests to us that it is a norm rather than a behavior that is spreading.

Why? Because for a behavior to spread, typically, you and I would have to be together. We would have to go running together, share meals together, or copy each other’s behavior in some way. And that should decay with geographic distance because the farther away you are, the less time we can spend together. But a norm can fly through the ether. I might see you once a year and see that you have gained a tremendous amount of weight, which resets my idea about what an acceptable body size is. And minimal contact might be enough.

If I go see my brother Dimitri for Thanksgiving, no matter how much food we eat, no matter how much we share the behavior of eating, it will not change my weight that one day. But if I see him and he has gained a lot of weight, it can change my idea about what an acceptable body size is and, in that way, the spread of the norm can cause the spread of obesity.


Clothing fashions spread in our society. One way this can happen is you see people that reset your idea of what is fashionable. Another is more pragmatic. I take you shopping and we pick something out together. I say, “Oh, I heard about a new store,” whatever. Those are two different ways in which fashions might spread.

We also have found in our work that things beyond obesity and smoking cessation spread in networks. Happiness spreads in networks. If your friend’s friend becomes happy, it ripples through the network and can make you happy. We see clusters of happy and unhappy individuals in the social network like blinking lights in this complex fabric that is made up of people where some people are happy and some people are unhappy and there is a kind of gray zone between them. There is an ongoing kind of equilibrium that is reached in this social space. We have found that depression can spread, and drinking behaviors can spread, and the kinds of foods people choose to eat can spread (a taste for tastes can spread, as one of my graduate students is studying). All of this using the initial Framingham Heart Study Social Network data set.

* * *

Incidentally, we are not claiming that the fact that obesity might spread through social networks — or that the social network phenomenon might be relevant to the obesity epidemic — is the only explanation for the epidemic. No doubt there are many explanations. Those explanations, incidentally, are not genetic. Our genes haven’t changed in the last 30 years.

The real explanations for the obesity epidemic are exclusively socio-environmental — things having to do with the increasing consumption of calories in our society: food is becoming cheaper, the composition of food is changing, there is increasing marketing of foodstuffs and the like. Also, clearly, there has been a change of rate at which people burn calories due to an increase in sedentary lifestyles, the design of our suburbs, and a whole host of such explanations.

We are not claiming that such explanations are not relevant. No doubt they are all part of the obesity epidemic. We are just saying that networks have this fascinating property whereby they magnify whatever they are seeded with. And so if you can get something going in a networked population like obesity, it can spread.

* * *

We also mention in our paper in the New England Journal the possible relevance of so-called “mirror neurons,” which is another mechanism which I didn’t touch on earlier. One possibility besides biological contagion is that by watching you exhibit certain kinds of behaviors like eating or running, I start to copy those behaviors mentally in a mirror-neuron kind of way. And this facilitates my exhibiting the same behavior.

It is actually quite complicated to know how to exploit these network phenomena in a situation like the one we have been discussing because if you have a lot of people of one body type and you introduce somebody of a different body type, it is unclear who will influence whom. The thin person might gain weight, or the overweight people might lose weight. Or both. It is a very complicated dynamic, which again requires a kind of deployment of a certain kind of data and methods to begin to understand.

I should also stress something very important, which is that James Fowler’s and my primary focus is not obesity, it is networks. Obesity happens to be an incredibly important public health problem and was something very important to study, above all because it showed how something people might not have thought of as spreading in social networks could. If we had shown, for example that fashion spread in social networks, that might be much less interesting to people. But if you can show that something like obesity or happiness or even goodness spreads in social networks, you are on new terrain.

Incidentally, some of these things also touch on very old philosophical and social science concerns, as I mentioned earlier, because they raise questions about free will. If my behaviors and my thoughts are determined not just by my own volition, but are determined by the behaviors and thoughts of other people to whom I am connected, and are even determined by the behaviors and thoughts of other people who I do not know and who are beyond my social horizon but who are connected to people to whom I am connected, it speaks to the issue of free will. Are my thinking and my behavior truly free, or are they constrained because I am part of a social network? To the extent that I am part of this human super-organism, does that reduce my individuality? And does this give us more or less insight into human behavior?

Because we are talking about networks of human beings rather than networks of neurons or computers, it is the case that I am not just plunked down in a network that is determined by some kind of exogenous physical law. There is no doubt that the topology obeys certain biological and psychological rules and laws, but it is also true that I can choose who my friends are and say, “You know, I don’t like these friends; I am going to pick new friends,” and in turn choose new friends.

That is, your desires and ideas can influence the structure of your network. For example, if you have ideas that foster a certain kind of ties, those ties in turn foster and support certain kinds of ideas. You can imagine a circumstance in which certain kinds of ideologies can survive and offer certain kinds of advantages because they bind the group together, or tear it apart, in particular kinds of ways. We have been thinking a little bit about this in terms of groups of people that seem to evince what would appear to be self-destructive behaviors, but our thoughts in this regard are still very preliminary.

* * *

. . . . We have talked about the flow of obesity through a network, we have talked about the flow of happiness through a network, we have talked about the flow of smoking cessation through a network, we have talked about the flow of fashions through a network. Now we are talking about the flow of tastes in privacy through the network. And tastes in all kinds of other things, like music, movies, or books, or a taste in food. Or a flow of altruism through the network. All of these kinds of things can flow through social networks and obey certain rules we are seeking to discover.

* * *

To read the entire transcript or view the video on Edge, click here. For previous Situationist posts discussing the work of Christakis and Fowler, see “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” and “Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg.” For  Situationist posts discussing the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Life | 8 Comments »

The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 2, 2008

This post was originally published on February 4, 2007.

Superbowl XLI

As I stake out my position on the couch this evening – close enough to reach the pretzels and my beer, but with an optimal view of the TV – it will be nice to imagine that the spectacle about to unfold is a sporting event. It shouldn’t be too hard: after all, there on the screen will be the field, Brian Urlacher stretching out his quads, Peyton Manning tossing a football, referees in their freshly-starched zebra uniforms milling about. Yes, I’ll think to myself, this has all the makings of a football game.

How foolish.

The Super Bowl isn’t about sports; it’s about making money. And with 90 million or so viewers, there is a lot of money to be made.

With CBS charging an estimated $2.6 million for each 30-second advertising spot, it’s no surprise that corporations don’t mess around with guessing what the most effective approach will be for selling their products. They call in the scientists.brain-on-advertising.jpg

For the second year in a row, FKF Applied Research has partnered with the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, to “measure the effect of many of the Super Bowl ads by using fMRI technology.” The research involves “track[ing] the ads on a host of dimensions by looking for activity in key parts of the brain areas that are known to be involved in wanting, choosing, sexual arousal, fear, indecision and reward.” As the FKF website explains, why this research is useful to Fortune 100 companies is that it

shows clearly that what people say in focus groups and in response to poll questions is not what they actually think, feel and do. fMRI scans using our analytical methods allow us to see beyond self report and to understand the emotions and thoughts that are driving (or impeding) behavior.

Looking beyond the spoken word provides immense and actionable insights into a brand, a competitive framework, advertising and visual images and cues.

As it turns out, “brand” lives in a particular place in the human brain:

[W]hen [FKF] did an academic study on the impact of iconic brands, such as Pepsi and Coke and McDonalds, [they] found that the same part of the brain lit up over images of sports logos – say, for the NBA or NFL. There is a clear connection in the human brain between the anticipation of eating that you get from, say, the Coke logo and with the NBA logo.


For someone like me, who has always wondered why I feel so hungry reading the sports page, this is interesting stuff. For a corporate CEO, this is extremely interesting – and actionable – stuff. For everyone else . . . this is a reason to be concerned.

Corporations are using science to figure out how our brains work so they can sell more products and what they are finding is that our brains don’t work the way we think they do.

Anticipating this worry, FKF has an Ethics tab on its website:

We are committed to the highest level of ethical behavior in conducting our work. We are determined to be diligent in carving out a new field, and being a leader and advocate in ensuring the best interests of our subjects, the public, and our clients are protected. . . . We believe that wide dissemination about how people make decisions will empower all concerned – both consumers and purveyors of information. Such information, freely discussed in a democracy, will allow us to understand better how marketing is affecting us, discredit manipulation, promote communication, and help illuminate a process that fundamentally shapes the lives of human beings.

Sounds good – in fact, it sounds like situationism, and I have no reason to think that the founders of FKF, or the university scientists with whom they work, aren’t upstanding citizens with good moral compasses. It’s just that I’m still uneasy.

Corporations don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to learning counterintuitive information about human decision making and then using it responsibly. Rather, the best approach for maximizing shareholder profit is to discover some seemingly-illogical detail about the human brain, use that knowledge to sell more widgets, and then convince the public that their naïve (and incorrect) beliefs about how they make choices are, in fact, correct.

Take big tobacco: as Jon Hanson and others have documented, after figuring out that nicotine was addictive and could compel people to buy marlboro-sm.jpgMarlboros, cigarette companies made a concerted effort to both up nicotine concentrations in their products and convince people, through advertising, that they were rational actors who were not easily manipulated. From the perspective of an entity that is charged, through our legal rules, with making money (and not with doing social good), it makes little sense to alter peoples’ situations to get them to be better consumers and then tell them that you are doing it and that it matters.

Why, that would be as silly as announcing a weak-side blitz to the quarterback before the play. Sure, it would be the nice, ethical thing to warn decent gentlemen like Manning and Rex Grossman of the imminent threat, but it’s not part of the game we’ve developed. Football is a game where you can get blind-sided.

As corporations and our brains make certain, so is watching football.

* * *

(To read about the results of a brain-scan study of men and women watching the 2006 Super Bowl by UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacobini, click here. To listen to a recent one-hour NPR (On Point) program on “The Changing World of Advertising,” click here.)

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Situationist Sports | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Eating

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 26, 2008

People EatingOn many occasions, we have discussed how one’s situation can play a major role in his or her eating patterns, often in ways that go undetected. Along those lines, though obesity is often attributed to a lack of will, laziness, or poor eating habits, it likely better reflects one’s situation and the constraints placed on it.

Shari Roan of the Los Angeles Times offers a great summary of situational influences on eating, and we excerpt her list below.

* * *

People can be influenced to eat unhealthful food, or more food than they should, without even realizing it.

Advertising matters

One study, published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that people think they are eating healthfully if it’s advertised that way. Researchers had people eat Subway meals that contained the same amount of calories as a McDonald’s meal, but the people estimated that the Subway meal contained 35% fewer calories.

Eating is automatic

A 2004 study in the journal Appetite showed that people who are served bigger portions will eat more. Men given large bags of potato chips ate triple the number of chips — an extra 311 calories — compared with men given a small bag of chips.

Visual cues prompt eating

A 2004 study in the Annual Review of Nutrition found that people ate 69% more jelly beans when they were offered in a mixed assortment than a group offered jelly beans sorted by color.

The setting matters

A 2005 study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that the more pleasant the environment, the more people will eat. People shown a picture of a smiling person poured more of a drink, drank more and rated the drink more favorably than people shown pictures of a frowning person.

Portions direct eating

A 2003 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that doubling the size of an entree increased overall food intake 25%. The consumers did not compensate for the bigger entree by decreasing the intake of other food on their plates.McDonald’s

Other people influence eating

A 1992 study in Physiology & Behavior found that food consumption increased 28% when one other person was present and 71% when six or more companions were present.

Eating is contagious

A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that obesity can spread through social networks. A person’s chances of becoming obese increased 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in the same time period. If one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased 40%.

Marketing matters

Several studies published in the 1970s and 1980s show that doubling the shelf space of an item in a grocery store increases sales of the item as much as 40%.

* * *

For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in AmericaFor a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of the Dreaded “Freshman 15”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2007

freshman-15.jpgEvery August, millions of young adults matriculate to colleges and universities across the country. A good number of them will put on weight during their first-year. Many will appear noticeably heavier–and we’re not talking about added muscle, either.

This phenomenon is sometimes called the “Freshman 15,” and suggests that first-year college students tend to put on about 15 pounds over the course of their first year. The Freshman 15 has been attributed to a host of situational explanations, including increased access to alcohol, peer pressure to consume the alcohol, more demanding classes and heightened expectations for studying, continuous exposure to unhealthy foods in college cafeterias, the prevalence of low-cost, fast food restaurants in and around campus, and the late night studying- or partying-induced “midnight munchies,” where a student has stayed up too late and craves food, with Dominoes Pizza and the like catering to their hunger needs into the wee hours of the morning.

Some believe that the Freshman Fifteen is exaggerated. Nutrition Professors Alison Duncan and Janis Randall Simpson of the University of Guelph, for instance, recently published a study finding that at least among female first-year students at their university (which is located in Ontario, Canada), the average weight gain is only 5 pounds. Yet other observers believe the Freshman Fifteen is quite true.

A new article by Steve Gershman and Hai-Jung Kim in the Tufts Observer examines the Freshman 15 through a survey of Tufts students. We excerpt portions of their article below.

* * *

A vast majority of students interviewed in an Observer survey set times for eating meals. In addition, many of them provided unprompted insights into their behavioral patterns. “I eat lunch around 12:30 and dinner around seven depending on classes,” says senior Josh Yellin. Likewise, other students claimed that their class or work schedules were the most influential factors determining when they ate meals.

Robin Kanarek, a psychology professor at Tufts, says these abnormal eating habits are largely due to a “society of work,” and how “people have set lives in our society” in terms of what is done at what times. In deciding when to eat, students maneuver around classes, part-time jobs, studying for tests, and extracurricular and other activities. Additionally, most students prefer to wake up as late as they can without sacrificing theirCollege Cafeteria commitments. Since eating breakfast is not considered a commitment, the majority of students surveyed said they eat only two meals each day. Every person who responded that he or she eats fewer than three meals a day also refrained from eating in the morning. However, breakfast is considered by medical professionals to be the most important meal of the day since it restores the glucose levels and essential nutrients necessary for the body to perform to its potential.

Prof. Kanarek provided a glimpse into a working person’s life as being even more stringently regulated in terms of eating times. “Get up, go to breakfast, work, lunch at meetings,” she says, noting that “dinner varies more than other meals.” She contrasted this routine with eating patterns she observed in Africa. She studied a group of Bushmen — indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert — who “didn’t go to work, but ate much more often than we do [and] in smaller proportions.”

People’s snacking habits depend, therefore, on the society in which they live and on their schedule. Because students are generally busy with classes, homework, errands, and extracurricular activities, they tend to eat infrequently and have large meals at the buffet-style dining halls.

* * *

Beer and Pizza 2There is an additional evolutionary basis to eating in groups. Prof. Karanek conducted a study with foods that smelled different. In her experiment, a rat ate a food that smelled like licorice or basil, while another rat stood watching. The rat that saw another rat eating licorice was more likely to eat licorice. Likewise, the rat that saw another rat eating basil was more likely to eat basil. Through observation, the rats learned something about each food and found out whether it was safe to ingest.

The study exemplifies the psychological term “mere exposure effect,” in which simply sensing a person or thing brings it to the forefront of one’s mind and therefore is more familiar and often consequently more desirable. The idea that choosing to eat one thing over another as a matter of life or death is far removed from our daily reality. But the next time we decide to eat ice cream after watching a friend eat ice cream, it is interesting to note that there may be millions of years of survival at play.

* * *

For the rest of the article, click here. For related Situationist articles on eating and food, click here.

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Fatness = Our “Obesogenic” Society

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 18, 2007

Body Mass Index

The BBC published a story this week about a massive study in the UK regarding the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic. One of the key messages of the report is that obesity is not the consequence of a sudden explosion of lazy overeaters, but dramatic shift in our environments and other factors situational. We excerpt portions of that below.

* * *

Individuals can no longer be held responsible for obesity so government must act to stop Britain “sleepwalking” into a crisis, a report has concluded. The largest ever UK study into obesity, backed by government and compiled by 250 experts, said excess weight was now the norm in our “obesogenic” society.

Dramatic and comprehensive action was required to stop the majority of us becoming obese by 2050, they said.

But the authors admitted proof that any anti-obesity policy works “was scant.”

Rising Incidence of ObesityNonetheless every level of society, from individual to the upper echelons of government, must become involved in the campaign against a condition which carries such great social and economic consequences, they said.

In 2002, those who were overweight or obese cost nearly £7bn in treatment and state benefits and in indirect costs such as loss of earnings and reduced productivity.

In 40 years time, that figure could reach nearly £46bn, as health services struggle to cope with the ill health such as diabetes, cancer and stroke which can be associated with excess weight.

“There is a danger that the moment to act radically and dramatically will be missed,” said Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor and head of the Foresight Programme which drew up the report.

“It is a problem that is getting worse every year.”

So hard

Obesity, the authors concluded, was an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense, cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work were rife.

In this environment it was surprising that anyone was able to remain thin, Dr Susan Jebb of the Medical Research Council said, and so the notion of obesity simply being a product of personal over-indulgence had to be abandoned for good.

“The stress has been on the individual choosing a healthier lifestyle, but that simply isn’t enough,” she said.

From planning our towns to encourage more physical activity to placing more pressure on mothers to breast feed – believed to slow down infant weight gain – the report highlighted a range of policy options without making any concrete recommendations.

Industry was already working to put healthier products on the shelf, the report noted, while work was advanced in transforming the very make-up of food so it was digested more slowly and proved satisfying for longer.

But it was clear that government needed to involve itself, as on this occasion, the market was failing to do the job, Sir David said.

Shock tactics?

uk-shock-warning.jpgPublic Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said the government would be holding further consultations to decide how to proceed.

She said it was too early to say whether the same “shock” approach seen in public health warnings against smoking would be adopted with obesity, or whether a tax on fatty foods, highlighted in the report but widely dismissed as unworkable, would be considered.

“The most important thing is there has to be public consent and understanding of the issues you’re trying to challenge,” she said.

“A mandate for change will be difficult because it has to be preceded by an understanding of the dangers of obesity.”

The Royal College of Physicians said the report was “encouraging.”

“The emphasis on cross-governmental initiatives is particularly welcome, as is the importance of addressing issues across society whilst avoiding blame,” said its president, Professor Ian Gilmore.

The Food and Drink Federation said it understood its role in tackling the problem.

“Our industry is now widely recognised as leading the world when it comes to reformulating products; extending consumer choice; and introducing improved nutrition labelling,” a spokesperson said.

* * *

For a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 29, 2007


We often hear about new and allegedly innovative approaches to implementing public policy. The key word, of course, is “innovative.” By definition, it means the process of making improvements by introducing something new or — and particularly relevant to the following discussion — translating new ideas into tangible societal impact.

This year we’ve seen plenty of “innovative” approaches when it comes to public health. Some have attracted headlines. “Philadelphia follows New York in taking on trans-fat“; “Montgomery county declares war on partially hydrogenated oils in restaurants, supermarket bakeries, and delis.”

The city of Los Angeles will soon contemplate its own new and likely controversial proposal for innovative public health policy: “health zoning plans” for fast-food. As Tami Abdollah of the Los Angeles Times details, LA’s city council will be asked this fall to consider an up to two-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South L.A., “a part of the city where fast food is at least as much a practicality as a preference.”

NPR’s All Things Considered outlines additional details on the proposed two-year moratorium. “In South Los Angeles, where 30 percent of adults are obese, activists and lawmakers are pointing to one possible cause: few dining-out choices except for fast food restaurants.” According to NPR, this particular low-income area, much like other low-income urban areas across the country, offers few healthy food alternatives, even fewer grocery stores, and fast food chains may be found just a stone’s throw away from each other.

Tami Abdollah describes the situation of many South L.A. residents this way.

* * *

Catalina Ayala, 23, who grew up in South Los Angeles, lives three blocks from a McDonald’s and a slew of other fast-food restaurants, and eats fast food about four times a week.

“By the time I go home, it’s already too late to cook food,” said Ayala, who works at LAX.

On a recent afternoon, Ayala and her husband were at a McDonald’s. Their 3-year-old son played in the indoor playground, which for some families serves as their children’s park.

But her husband, a 23-year-old construction worker in South L.A., said he avoids fast food.

“It’s not for me,” he said. “Later on sometimes, your son is too fat, he eats too much.”

That was one reason Terrah Cephas, 32, left South L.A. for the Valley about two years ago.

“It’s fast food on every corner, but it’s not enough wholesome restaurants,” she said. “You literally have to be willing to drive to Long Beach or Santa Monica, or Inglewood.”

Fast Food

That’s if you have a car.

Many South L.A. residents are “almost a captive audience for these restaurants, unfortunately,” Flynn said.

In South Los Angeles, 28% of people live in poverty, compared with 16.2% of the county, according to county figures.

South L.A. has lots of fast-food restaurants because these restaurants do well in areas where people might not want to spend $15 on lunch, said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Foodservice Strategies at WD Partners, a restaurant consulting firm that works with Red Lobster, Jamba Juice and Fatburger, among others.

But there also may be missed opportunities: According to a 2005 market study contracted by the city, South L.A. loses more than $400 million annually in general merchandise, grocery and restaurant sales to outside areas.

“The community has suffered for decades by an assumption that attracting business of any type is good, and it’s not true,” Perry said.

* * *

In a situation where fast food is available twenty-four hours (and in abundance), it should not be surprising that an overweight population arises. Yet as discussed in Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America, a law review article by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, “obesity is only a symptom of the problem.” The “real problem” is the difficulty in recognizing and understanding “[roles] of unseen features in our environment and within us and too readily [attributing] responsibility and causation to the more obvious ‘personal choices’ of the obese.” In essence, assigning obesity to personal choices alone and not discerning the relevant situational forces results in “misdiagnosing” the true problem. With obesity at an all-time high throughout the United States, 47 states are above 20% and fifteen years ago no state was above 15%, pressure to implement “innovative” plans (that work) will substantially increase.

Los Angeles’ proposal enables a new term in policy, health zoning, which raises an important question: do policymakers have a responsibility to address public health problems generally attributed primarily to personal choice? More broadly, if people are moved largely by situation, and if situation is influenced by laws and policies, then should policymakers consider the situational consequences of their policies — intended and unintended.

For a collection of other posts on the situation of obesity, including Phil Zimbardo’s most recent post, click here. For other posts on the regulation of food, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Law, Marketing, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right

Posted by Chloe Cockburn on August 8, 2007

McDonalds big mac costume for kids - issue of marketing good to children is a tricky one for food companies, whose profit margins depend on being able to woo young customers, but whose public relations concerns require them to advocate healthier eating for kids. Three weeks ago, eleven of America’s biggest food and drink companies announced that they would adopt rules to limit advertising to children under the age of 12, including not using popular movie characters in connection with unhealthy products. This move anticipated an FTC hearing that sought to increase pressure on food companies to address the child obesity epidemic through responsible marketing. The McDonald’s spokesperson at the hearing claimed that McDonald’s would market only healthy foods to children under 12.

Despite this voluntary agreement to limit their marketing through some mediums, companies are not abandoning the children’s market. At a recent conference, major food companies gathered to hear tips from marketing specialists about how to work around limitations on marketing in England, where new regulation has sharply cut down on television commercials. Alternative tactics focus on the internet and cell phones, finding ways to encourage children to market products to their friends through games and contests.

The strong power of marketing extends beyond persuading a child to choose one kind of food over another. New Scientist reports on a study conducted by Dina Borzekowski at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore and her colleagues, funded by Stanford University, which looked at the effect of McDonald’s packaging on pre-schoolers’ perception of the taste of food. Children said that food wrapped in McDonalds packaging tasted better than food that was not wrapped in the packaging, despite the fact that the two food samples were identical (and both from McDonalds). From the child’s perspective, she is simply choosing the food that tastes better. However, the study indicates that the McDonalds logo is generating that perception.

* * *

Fast food branding makes children prefer happy meals

by Roxanne Khamsi

Fast food branding really does make food more appetising to children. A study has revealed that pre-school kids prefer foods wrapped in McDonalds packaging over the same snacks wrapped in unmarked packaging.

The finding gives all the more reason to limit the marketing of fast foods to youngsters, say the researchers who conducted the study. But they also add that it suggests that powerful branding could help sell more nutritious healthy foods to a generation of increasingly overweight kids.

Dina Borzekowski at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore, Maryland, US, and her colleagues asked 63 preschoolers, aged three to five, to sample two meals, each consisting of a chicken nugget, a quarter of a hamburger, french fries, two baby carrots and a small cup of milk.

Baby eating McDonalds fries -

Although both meals came from a local McDonalds, only one of them appeared in its original packaging. Researchers presented items from the other meal in plain wrappers, which lacked the company’s distinctive logo.

In most cases children said they tasted a difference between the two meals, and they overwhelmingly preferred the McDonalds-branded foods.

Commercial influence

For example, 76 per cent favoured the fries presented in the branded packaging, compared with 13 per cent who liked the unbranded fries better. And while 60 per cent of the children preferred the McDonalds-branded chicken nuggets, only 10 per cent favoured the nuggets presented in plain wrapping.

“It’s no surprise that branding works,” says Borzekowski. “What’s interesting about these results is to see how strongly it affects the three- to five-year-olds.”

The study also found that children in homes with more televisions were more likely to show a preference for the branded meal, suggesting that fast-food commercials exert a strong influence.

“It just shows how difficult it is for parents to fight the battle alone,” says Kathryn Montgomery, an expert on children and media at American University in Washington DC.

Experts have estimated that the food and beverage industries spend more than $10 billion each year to market products to US children. “They could just as easily use marketing to support parents in their efforts to feed kids a healthy diet,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest based in Washington DC.

Healthy Alternative

Borzekowski points out that the children in the study were twice as likely to prefer the McDonalds-branded carrots as the plain-packaged ones. This suggests that marketing savvy could perhaps convince youngsters to make healthful choices. Some companies have already begun experimenting with this tactic by using Mickey Mouse cartoons to sell sliced fruit and placing Curious George stickers on bananas.

Last month McDonalds announced it would shift its advertising targeted to children under the age of 13 to focus on the 375-calorie Happy Meal, which it says meets current dietary standards outlined by the government.

Nutritionists hope that curbing fast-food television ads will help reverse the obesity epidemic among youngsters. But new forms of cellphone and internet marketing mean that adolescents are increasingly exposed to junk-food ads. “My guess is that the effects [of ads] might even increase with time,” says Thomas Robinson at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California, who co-authored the new study with Borzekowski.

Journal reference: Archives of Pediatrics (vol 161, p792-797)

Ronald McDonald dancing with kids -* * *

Limiting marketing to children on certain mediums like television during popular children’s shows may not go far enough in addressing the situation that fosters dangerous eating habits. McDonald’s has said that the only Happy Meals it will promote to children will be healthier options that contain fruit. However, if the brand itself causes kids to think that the food tastes better, then whether or not the company markets specific products to kids may not matter as much. Regulating the effects of this situation may prove to be far more difficult than anticipated.

For a sample of other Situationist posts about the effects of advertising on consumers see Banner Ads Really Work,The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain,and Another Reason Not To Watch Drug Commercials. For an excellent book detailing the food industry’s odious methods of marketing to kids, see Susan Linn’s “Consuming Kids.” Click here for a recent New York Times article about Kellogg’s announcement that it would phase out advertising certain products to young children (apparently, though not explicitly, in response to the threat of lawsuits).

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 2, 2007

Fat RonaldNo one would deny that your friends have a profound effect on your personality and what you find to be socially acceptable. A group of friends develops inside jokes, shared history, and gestures that instantly convey complex meanings. They also influence each member’s views of how people should act in groups and what is acceptable behavior. Sense of humor, language deemed acceptable, and actions that are allowed and frowned upon all develop within a group.

It should not surprise us to learn that our social groups also influence our appearance — from how we dress, to whether we like or are turned off by tattoos and piercings. A recent study shows that this group influence may go further than most of us probably assume and may even influence obesity rates. A great deal has already been written on the situational sources of obesity. But this study sheds light on how body type and fitness may be connected to one situational feature that has been largely missed in previous work: friendships, social connections and their associated implicit (perhaps sometimes explicit) group norms . Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego, followed the weight levels of more than 12,000 Framingham, MA residents over a 30 year period and found some shocking correlations. Gina Kolata of the International Herald Tribune reports.

* * *

Obesity spreads to friends, study concludes

by Gina Kolata

Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus, according to researchers. When one person gains weight, close friends tend to gain weight too.

Their study, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved a detailed analysis of a large social network of 12,067 people who had been closely followed for 32 years, from 1971 until 2003. The investigators knew who was friends with whom, as well as who was a spouse or sibling or neighbor, and they knew how much each person weighed at various times over three decades.

That let them watch what happened over the years as people became obese. Did their friends also become obese? Did family members? Or neighbors?

The answer, the researchers report, was that people were most likely to become obese when a friend became obese. That increased one’s chances of becoming obese by 57 percent.

There was no effect when a neighbor gained or lost weight, however, and family members had less of an influence than friends. It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away – the influence remained. And the greatest influence of all was between mutual close friends. There, if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese too.

The same effect seemed to occur for weight loss, the investigators say, but since most people were gaining, not losing, over the 32 years, the result was an obesity epidemic.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator in the new study, says one explanation is that friends affect each others’ perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad.

“You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you,” Christakis said.socially-contagious-obesity.jpg

The investigators say their findings can help explain why Americans became fatter in recent years: Persons who became obese were likely to drag some friends with them.

Their analysis was unique, Christakis said, because it moved beyond a simple analysis of one person and his or her social contacts, and instead examined an entire social network at once, looking at how a friend’s friends’ friends, or a spouse’s siblings’ friends, could have an influence on a person’s weight. The effects, Christakis said, “highlight the importance of a spreading process, a kind of social contagion, that spreads through the network.”

Of course, the investigators say, social networks are not the only factors that affect body weight. There is a strong genetic component at work too.

Science has shown that individuals have genetically determined ranges of weights, spanning perhaps 30 or so pounds, or 13.5 kilograms, for each person. But that leaves a large role for the environment in determining whether a person’s weight is near the top of his or her range or near the bottom. As people have gotten fatter, it appears that many are edging toward the top of their ranges. The question has been why.

If the new research is correct, it might mean that something in the environment seeded what many call an obesity epidemic, making a few people gain weight. Then social networks let the obesity spread rapidly.

It also might mean that the way to avoid becoming fat is to avoid having fat friends.

Dr. ChristakisThat is not the message they meant to convey, say the study investigators, Christakis and his colleague James Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego. You don’t want to lose a friend who becomes obese, Christakis said. Friends are good for your overall health, he explains.

So why not make friends with a thin person, he suggests, and let the thin person’s behavior influence you and your obese friend?

That answer does not satisfy obesity researchers like Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

“I think there’s a great risk here in blaming obese people even more for things that are caused by a terrible environment,” Brownell said.

On average, the investigators said, their rough calculations show that a person who became obese gained 17 pounds, and the newly obese person’s friend gained 5 pounds. But some gained less or did not gain at all, while others gained much more.

Those extra pounds were added onto the natural increases in weight that occur when people get older. What usually happened was that peoples’ weights got high enough to push them over the boundary, a body mass index of 30, that divides overweight and obese. (For example, a man 6 feet, or 1.8 meters, tall who went from 220 pounds to 225 would go from being overweight to obese.)

Their research has taken obesity specialists and social scientists aback. But many say the finding is path-breaking and can shed new light on how and why people have gotten so fat so fast.


“It is an extraordinarily subtle and sophisticated way of getting a handle on aspects of the environment that are not normally considered,” said Dr. Rudolph Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University in New York.

Dr. Richard Suzman, who directs the office of behavioral and social research programs at the U.S. National Institute on Aging, called it “one of the most exciting studies to come out of medical sociology in decades.” The National Institute on Aging funded the study.

But Dr. Stephen O’Rahilly, an obesity researcher at the University of Cambridge in England, says the very uniqueness of the Framingham data is going to make it hard to try to replicate the new findings. No other study he knows of has the same sort of long term and detailed data on social interactions.

“When you come upon things that inherently look a bit implausible, you raise the bar for standards of proof,” O’Rahilly said. “Good science is all about replication, but it is hard to see how science will ever replicate this.”

* * *

For an NPR, Morning Edition transcript and audio report about the study click here. For a collection of previous, related Situationist posts discussing the role of situation in obesity, click here. To link to an article by Situationist contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon on the situational sources of the obesity epidemic, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Life | 6 Comments »

Industry-Funded Research – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2007


In April, we posted excerpts from an Los Angeles Times article about James Enstrom (at U.C.L.A.) and the relationship of his research to tobacco-industry funding. Enstrom’s research, and the controversy surrounding it, is current.

But there there is nothing new about the role of industry (and, particularly, the tobacco industry) in influencing, among other variables, what academics study, how they study it, who does the studying, if and where the research is published, and how that published research is then publicized. (For a collection of postings on those topics, click here.)

Below we have pasted an essay, “Tracing the Cigarette’s Path from Sexy to Deadly,” written by Howard Markel, M.D. for The New York Times on March 20, 2007. It provides a cursory overview of the tobacco industry’s manipulations of how the world’s deadliest (and least regulated) product was perceived in the 20th Century.

* * *

For many Americans, the tobacco industry’s disingenuousness became a matter of public record during a Congressional hearing on April 14, 1994. There, under the withering glare of Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, appeared the chief executives of the seven largest American tobacco companies.

Each executive raised his right hand and solemnly swore to tell the whole truth about his business. In sequential testimony, each one stated that he did not believe tobacco was a health risk and that his company had taken no steps to manipulate the levels of nicotine in its cigarettes.

Thirty years after the famous surgeon general’s report declaring cigarette smoking a health hazard, the tobacco executives, it seemed, were among the few who believed otherwise.

brandt-cigarette-century.jpgBut it was not always that way. Allan M. Brandt, a medical historian at Harvard, insists that recognizing the dangers of cigarettes resulted from an intellectual process that took the better part of the 20th century. He describes this fascinating story in his new book, “The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America” (Basic Books).

In contrast to the symbol of death and disease it is today, from the early 1900s to the 1960s the cigarette was a cultural icon of sophistication, glamour and sexual allure — a highly prized commodity for one out of two Americans.

Many advertising campaigns from the 1930s through the 1950s extolled the healthy virtues of cigarettes. Full-color magazine ads depicted kindly doctors clad in white coats proudly lighting up or puffing away, with slogans like “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

Early in the 20th century, opposition to cigarettes took a moralmore-doctors-smoke-camels.jpg rather than a health-conscious tone, especially for women who wanted to smoke, although even then many doctors were concerned that smoking was a health risk.

The 1930s were a period when many Americans began smoking and the most significant health effects had not yet developed. . . .

The years after World War II, however, were a time of major breakthroughs in epidemiological thought. In 1947, Richard Doll and A. Bradford Hill of the British Medical Research Council created a sophisticated statistical technique to document the association between rising rates of lung cancer and increasing numbers of smokers.

The prominent surgeon Evarts A. Graham and a medical student, Ernst L. Wynder, published a landmark article in 1950 comparing the incidence of lung cancer in their nonsmoking and smoking patients at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. They concluded that “cigarette smoking, over a long period, is at least one important factor in the striking increase in bronchogenic cancer.”

Predictably, the tobacco companies — and their expert surrogates — derided these and other studies as mere statistical arguments or anecdotes rather than definitions of causality.

Dr. Brandt, who has exhaustively combed through the tobacco companies’ internal memorandums and research documents, amply demonstrates that Big Tobacco understood many of the health risks of their products long before the 1964 surgeon general’s report.

He also describes the concerted disinformation campaigns these companies waged for more than half a century — simultaneously obfuscating scientific evidence and spreading the belief that since everyone knew cigarettes were dangerous at some level, smoking was essentially an issue of personal choice and responsibility rather than a corporate one.

In the 1980s, scientists established the revolutionary concept that nicotine is extremely addictive. The tobacco companies publicly rejected such claims, even as they took advantage of cigarettes’ addictive potential by routinely spiking them with extra nicotine to make it harder to quit smoking. And their marketing memorandums document advertising campaigns aimed at youngsters to hook whole new generations of smokers.

In 2004, Dr. Brandt was recruited by the Department of Justice to serve as its star expert witness in the federal racketeering case against Big Tobacco and to counter the gaggle of witnesses recruited by the industry. According to their own testimony, most of the 29 historians testifying on behalf of Big Tobacco did not even consult the industry’s internal research or communications. Instead, these experts focused primarily on a small group of skeptics of the dangers of cigarettes during the 1950s, many of whom had or would eventually have ties to the tobacco industry.

Dr. Allan Brandt“I was appalled by what the tobacco expert witnesses had written,” Dr. Brandt said in a recent interview. “By asking narrow questions and responding to them with narrow research, they provided precisely the cover the industry sought.”

Apparently, the judge, Gladys Kessler of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, agreed. Last August, she concluded that the tobacco industry had engaged in a 40-year conspiracy to defraud smokers about tobacco’s health dangers. Her opinion cited Dr. Brandt’s testimony more than 100 times.

Dr. Brandt acknowledges that there are pitfalls in combining scholarship with battle against the deadly pandemic of cigarette smoking, but he says he sees little alternative.

“If one of us occasionally crosses the boundary between analysis and advocacy, so be it,” he said. “The stakes are high, and there is much work to be done.”

* * *

To watch Harvard’s Allan Brandt fascinating, one-hour lecture on his book, view the video below.

Posted in Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law, History, Marketing, Public Policy | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Our Food – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 8, 2007

WWII posterThis three-part series is based on Michael Pollan’s recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Part I describe the puzzling fact that a hyper-processed and heavily packaged hostess Twinkie is cheaper than a bundle of “yanked from the soil” carrots. Part II helped to solve that puzzle by summarizing the role of the “farm bill” on prices and incentives — showing how “market outcomes” are contingent on the seemingly irrelevant but highly determinative regulatory backdrop — and their ill-health consequences on the American populace.

This Part (excerpting the last portion of Pollan’s article) looks at the still-broader untoward effects of such laws and briefly considers what is being, and might still be, done in response.

* * *

Given all [its harmful effects], you would think the farm-bill debate would engage the nation’s political passions every five years, but that hasn’t been the case. If the quintennial antidrama of the “farm bill debate” holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes. The fact that the bill is deeply encrusted with incomprehensible jargon and prehensile programs dating back to the 1930s makes it almost impossible for the average legislator to understand the bill should he or she try to, much less the average citizen. It’s doubtful this is an accident.

But there are signs this year will be different. The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices. They got a boost from a 2004 ruling by the World Trade Organization that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal; most observers think that challenges to similar subsidies for corn, soy, wheat or rice would also prevail.


And then there are the eaters, people like you and me, increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of the food on offer in America. A grass-roots social movement is gathering around food issues today, and while it is still somewhat inchoate, the manifestations are everywhere: in local efforts to get vending machines out of the schools and to improve school lunch; in local campaigns to fight feedlots and to force food companies to better the lives of animals in agriculture; in the spectacular growth of the market for organic food and the revival of local food systems. In great and growing numbers, people are voting with their forks for a different sort of food system. But as powerful as the food consumer is — it was that consumer, after all, who built a $15 billion organic-food industry and more than doubled the number of farmer’s markets in the last few years — voting with our forks can advance reform only so far. It can’t, for example, change the fact that the system is rigged to make the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace the only ones the poor can afford. To change that, people will have to vote with their votes as well — which is to say, they will have to wade into the muddy political waters of agricultural policy.

Doing so starts with the recognition that the “farm bill” is a misnomer; in truth, it is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten with the interests of eaters placed first. Yes, there are eaters who think it in their interest that food just be as cheap as possible, no matter how poor the quality. But there are many more who recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food — to their health, to the land, to the animals, to the public purse. At a minimum, theseTemescal Farmers’ Market, Oakland eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely. Eaters want a bill that makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed surplus commodities from far away. Enlightened eaters also recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a country that can still produce its own food and doesn’t hurt the world’s farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets.

The devil is in the details, no doubt. Simply eliminating support for farmers won’t solve these problems; overproduction has afflicted agriculture since long before modern subsidies. It will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how to encourage farmers to focus on taking care of the land rather than all-out production, on growing real food for eaters rather than industrial raw materials for food processors and on rebuilding local food economies, which the current farm bill hobbles. But the guiding principle behind an eater’s farm bill could not be more straightforward: it’s one that changes the rules of the game so as to promote the quality of our food (and farming) over and above its quantity.

Such changes are radical only by the standards of past farm bills, which have faithfully reflected the priorities of the agribusiness interests that wrote them. One of these years, the eaters of America are going to demand a place at the table, and we will have the political debate over food policy we need and deserve. This could prove to be that year: the year when the farm bill became a food bill, and the eaters at last had their say.

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Situationist eaters of the world, UNITE!

The following video provides an illuminating (56-minute) panel discussion – “Fast Food World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain” — sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. The panelists, who were asked to assess the impact of globalization on food production and consumption, include Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Vandava Shiva, and Carlo Petrini.

Posted in Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Our Food – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2007

// I of this series, built around Michael Pollan’s recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine . . . ended with the following observation and question from Pollan:

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Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

* * *

This Part excerpts (immediately below) another section of Pollan’s article, which examines one of the answers – not the market, but the laws and regulations that govern the market – and suggests its connection to the still-ballooning national girth.

* * *


For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

Image from hansonjourney.comThat’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. Thebig-gulp.jpg farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration.

* * *

Part III of this series will pick up there, but there is more to say about the connection of corn subsidies to the obesity epidemic. The fact that the link between our laws the harms that those laws have contributed to requires explantion is itself a function of our general failure to see situation and to focus on disposition. That is a point that several Situationist contributors have made in other work as follows:

* * *

Lobbying by corn processors has had an undoubted effect on the expansion of corn subsidies, but it is only the most obvious part of the story. When asked about whether he saw any link between the subsidy programs and obesity, Tommy Thompson answered as if the question were silly: “I really don’t . . . [b]ecause the subsidy programs are things // are done through Congress, much more so than trying to come up with an overall strategy as, as fars as nutrition is concerned.”

The point seems to be that because Congress did not have a disposition to contribute to the obesity epidemic, Congressional policies are not at all responsible. This dispositionism stems in part, we believe from the fact that subsidies were not “intended” to influence public health – rather, they were intended as a means of helping certain farmers – and in part because the connections to our health are situational. Farm subsidies embody especially hard-to-see situation not only because they have been around so long that they feel natural and are accepted as given, but also because understanding how they increase health problems in the United States requires dealing with a long explanation. Marching down the causal chain is hard work, and given our resistance to explanations that do not comport with our dispositionist tendencies, few regulators make the trek.


Posted in Food and Drug Law, Law, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

The Situation of our Food – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 25, 2007

As many of our readers likely already know, Michael Pollan is an environmental journalist and educator of unparalleled eloquence and unusual influence. What many people may not realize is that Pollan is (as far as we’re concerned) also a first-rate situationist.


His best-selling and award winning books, include “The Botany of Desire” and more recently, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

This week, Pollan has a great piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “You Are What You Grow.” The article touches on themes and sheds light on issues that have come up in previous posts, including here, here, and here.

We have excerpted the opening section of that article below.

* * *

A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 processed-food.jpgcalories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

* * *

For the answer, go to the full article here, or check back here next week for Part II of this series. For those interested, there are two worthwhile audio interviews of Michael Pollan on NPR’s Fresh Air, available here and here). For a longer law review article on the situational sources of obesity, by several Situationist contributors, click here. If your situation permits, take a look at the video below, in which Michael Pollan speaks (in 2002) at Berkeley about “Cannibis, Forgetting, and the Botany of Desire.”


Posted in Food and Drug Law, Life | 3 Comments »

The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 7, 2007


Helen Phillips of New Scientist has a fascinating article on how our brains unknowingly become addicted to different behaviors and forms of consumption, and how whether we become addicted to something depends largely on the situations in which we find ourselves rather than the choices we make. Several Situationist contributors have explored this topic in other writings, including in the law review article “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” and in Situationist posts “FDA Wants Informed Choice” and “The Intersection Between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Videogames.” We have excerpted pieces of Phillips’ article below.

* * *

Making Good ChoicesThere’s a common perception that overindulgence in certain behaviours is all down to individual choice. If you are overeating, oversexed, gambling away your earnings or spending all your time online, you are more likely to be considered morally abhorrent than the victim of a disease. Calling these problems “addictions” has triggered debates about whether our society or our biology is to blame, and whether people that fall foul of a behavioural obsession should be offered help and treatment rather than punishment.

* * *

Several studies of the brain and behaviour back the idea that there’s very little biological difference between what goes on in the head of a gambling addict and that of a crack addict. A growing number of researchers believe that the same processes lie behind all addictions, behavioural or chemical, whether it’s gambling or shopping, computer gaming, love, work, exercise, pornography, eating or sex. “They have more in common than different,” says Sabine Grüsser-Sinopoli, who runs a clinic and research lab for behavioural addictions at the Charité Medical University in Berlin, Germany. “Addiction is all the same.”Addiction

* * *

More and more people are going to clinics asking for help to control the need to shop, have sex or gamble, because their behaviour is ruining their lives, says Grüsser-Sinopoli. Technological advances, especially the rise in popularity of the internet, are increasing the opportunities we have to engage in potentially addictive behaviours. The Center for Online Addiction, an educational and treatment group founded just over a decade ago by psychologist and internet addiction specialist Kimberly Young, now of St Bonaventure University in New York, estimates that as much as 5 to 10 per cent of the US population is addicted to some kind of internet-based activity, be it gaming, gambling, or using chatrooms and email.

Problem gambling is perhaps the most harmful of these. A 2000 survey commissioned by the British National Centre for Social Research revealed that about 1 per cent of the UK adult population had a pathological gambling problem, and the repeat survey, due out in a few months, is widely expected to show a rise – especially among women. Some researchers predict as many as 10 per cent of the US population will soon have a gambling problem. Record numbers of people are signing up to online gambling sites – the industry is now worth an estimated $12 billion – prompting a new US bill that aims to tighten restrictions on the practice. Around half of the new entries in this year’s “rich list” published by The Sunday Times in London have made their money running internet gambling sites or casinos.

The debate about whether behaviour can be considered a true addiction is not an entirely new one. In 1975, psychologist Stanton Peele wrote a book called Love and Addiction, which argued that all kinds of drug and non-drug experiences, including love, could be described as addictions. At the time, this was a term only really used to describe heroin abuse, he says. But look at how we talk about a lost love, and how similar to drug withdrawal it sounds: we are unable to think of anything else or to get out of bed, we’re crying and physically in pain. “There really is no way to differentiate the behaviour of gambling, a love affair or pursuing a drug,” he says.

Addiction Brain* * *

The evidence that behavioural addictions are very similar to chemical ones is mounting from brain studies too. According to addiction specialist Eric Nestler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, drug addictions and “natural” addictions seem to involve shared pathways in the brain. “Take a person with sex addiction, or a pathological gambler: their brains all show abnormal responses – the same reactions to drugs of abuse,” he says.

All pleasurable stimuli, natural and unnatural, act on the same “reward” circuitry in the brain. When we find something desirable, the brain chemical dopamine is released in the brain. Drugs of abuse all cause dopamine release, triggering a desire to keep taking them. Pleasurable behaviours are rewarding too and also release dopamine. The fact that behaviours and drugs of abuse converge on the same brain circuit is not enough to prove they can both be addictive, but there are more specific changes that do seem to be characteristic of addiction.

* * *

One other compulsive behaviour that has been controversial in the discussion of addiction is eating behaviour. Whether we could actually get hooked on food is controversial, but there are signs that delta Fos B rises in animals that compulsively consume sugar, suggesting sugar might be addictive in some cases.New Scientist

Bart Hoebel, a psychologist from Princeton University, believes we can be addicted to food – at least to sugar (New Scientist, 1 February 2003, p 26). He has shown that rats bingeing on sugar release dopamine in the same way as rats given high doses of addictive drugs, and doing so can cause lasting changes in the dopamine system, withdrawal symptoms and cross-sensitisation to other drugs, including amphetamines. Very sweet foods can induce a form of dependency, he believes.

One thing that this focus on behavioural addictions highlights is that we all have the potential to be addicts, says Jim Orford of the University of Birmingham, UK, author of a report on behavioural addictions for the UK Office of Science and Technology. “Almost any of us can become behavioural addicts, given the right exposure, the right timing and so on,” he says. “But there are multiple causes: our personalities, genetics – it’s not simple.” Why some people develop addictions while others can safely dip into these activities with no ill effects is still unknown.

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Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Life | 7 Comments »

Fast Food Litigation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 28, 2007

french-fries.gifLianne S. Pinchuk, an associate at Weil Gotshal, has an article today at comparing fast food litigation with cigarette litigation and summarizing the unpromising prospects of the former. The article highlights some of the obstacles to lawyers seeking significant damages from purveyors of fast food — including evidentiary burdens (particularly on the element of causation), and state statutes (the so-called “cheeseburger bills”) immunizing the food industry from certain types of liability. The Situationist would add a further source of protection for the industry: the widely held sense that blame for obesity belongs on those who eat the food, not those who manufacture, market, and sell it.

Pinchuk concludes her article this way:

Despite the lack of success of obesity-related personal injury cases thus far, it is important to remember that when allegations were first made against tobacco companies, the possibility of large verdicts seemed remote. It was only once the litigation reached the discovery phase and negative internal documents were revealed that large plaintiffs’ verdicts became possible. The Big Food cases to date have generally not led to discovery, and only Big Food itself knows what damning documents may exist. If they do exist and are discovered by plaintiffs lawyers, they may provide ammunition for more suits and increasing verdicts. Right now, however, fast food companies are enjoying more protections than tobacco companies ever did, and it appears that Big Food is not the next Big Tobacco.

The point is a good one and reveals a double bind for plaintiffs. If fast-food lawsuits are not viable because of the presumption that consumers are to blame, and if a key way that one can demonstrate the culpability of the industry is through a discovery process that is permitted only when one has a viable cause of action, then it may be that our attributions of blame reflect the failure of lawsuits as much as it is the case that the the failure of lawsuits reflect our assessment of blame.

Posted in Food and Drug Law | Leave a Comment »

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