Monday, October 11, 2010

The Playbook Used by the Food & Beverage Industry to Avoid All Blame for the Obesity Epidemic, and What Disease Management Can Do

The Disease Management Care Blog thinks that the disease, care and population health management providers deserve a lot of credit for leading the way in our national battle against obesity. This industry "gets it." It's more than just "consumer education" and go-see-your-PCP about starting a diet. While those elements are certainly necessary, disease management also knows about consumerism, engagement, overcoming barriers, behavioral theory, relationships, life-style management, being realistic and follow-through. These vendors are getting far more savvy about studying outcomes and using those data to continuously improve. They are participating in coalitions, joining public health initiatives, off-loading overburdened physicians, establishing partnerships, leveraging community resources, and formulating a compelling business case. They can do all that and still end the day with a tidy profit.

The DMCB also figures the disease management (DM) industry is also well aware of the cynical speciousness of the food and beverage industry's public posture about obesity. At the same time it's intentionally packing calories and salt into servings are both unhealthy and excessive, the food and beverage manufacturers have somehow escaped being lumped with tobacco and pharma. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.

That's the topic of an October 6 JAMA paper by Jeffrey Koplan and Kelly Brownell aptly titled "Response of the Food and Beverage Industry to the Obesity Threat." It's worthwhile reading for those combating the obesity epidemic. It gives special insight on how that industry combats greater scrutiny and regulation as well as why overweight patients desiring to lose weight can be so misinformed. This is important to know about so that patients can be better educated, know what they're up against, overcome barriers and better manage life-style choices.

Drs. Koplan and Brownell's report on the food industry's strategy is summarized below for DMCB readers that may not have full access or lots of time:

Associate with a widely respected health organizations: this gives the casual observer that the industry's wares are good for you.

As the DM industry's role in the crusade against obesity grows, it should probably resist any affiliation with the businesses that profit from making people fat.

Associate with a widely respected connotation: this generates the impression of wholesomeness. The authors mention featuring svelte exercisers on the packaging and in TV commercials, but the DMCB thinks claims of being "green" are also part of the mix.

Ironically, a disease management care plan with overemphasis on exercise as a cure for obesity is playing right into the food and beverage industry's hands. That has a role to play, but the key thing remains smart food choices and long term calorie restriction.

Reframe the issues: instead of addressing the merits of caloric excess, the idea here is to move the focus onto caloric neutrality (a serving of broccoli can be equal to a side order of fries), "in versus out" caloric balance (hence the intrusion of exercise as a fix for being fat; think about that the next time you watch Biggest Loser), keeping collateral societal costs out of the discussion ("even though half of all obesity related costs are paid for with public funds") and trumping free markets (we have a constitutional right to be fooled into making bad decisions).

At the individual patient level, part of the strategy of coaching is to help patients keep their eye on the caloric ball. Thanks to its growing visibility at various policy-making levels, the DM industry should continue to step up and shine a light on those collateral costs and take a greater leadership role in figuring out ways to help people make right decisions. Kudos, by the way, to the Care Continuum Alliance for doing its part.

Deceptive advocacy: this is setting up faux grass roots groups that are allegedly against regulation and taxation.

Hey, it's free speech. The DM industry needs to fight fire with fire.

Deceptive science: consisting of sponsoring biased studies and creating hollow self-regulating standards based on those biased studies.

The DM's industry's long tradition of tapping into vetted guidelines has been an important counterweight in its care for millions of Americans. It needs to stick to that tradition and educate policymakers and politicians about what works - and what doesn't.

Product formulation: it may still be the same air-filled puffs of fructose and fat, but add some vitamins or fiber and "voila!" the overwhelming impression is that it's now good for you.

In its day to day interactions, this and other attempts at caloric camouflage need to be countered one patient at a time. It may be that no patient coaching is complete without addressing that particular falsehood.

Go on the attack: it's not enough to deny any harm. Rather, get a stable of loyal talking-head scientists, lobby heavily, fight every unfriendly public health measure and label opponents as enemies.

The DMCB is looking forward to the day when a member of the DM industry is attacked by the food and beverage industry or one of its lackeys. They we'll know we're getting somewhere.

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