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Toxic shock

Amy Corderoy
Published: February 14, 2013 - 8:26AM

A woman dies, gasping for breath, sitting on her toilet as her heart finally gives out. She has been drinking about 10 litres of coke every day. That’s more than twice the safe daily limit of caffeine, and almost a kilogram of sugar daily.

She drank so much of the stuff her teeth had rotted away, and at least one of her children was also born with no enamel on their teeth, her family say.* The New Zealand coroner found she would not have died if it weren’t for her dependence on Coke. 

At the same time as his ruling emerges, but on the other side of the world, in Europe, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet releases a report on "non-communicable", or lifestyle, diseases.

Two Australian academics argue the alcohol and processed food industries are displaying the same behaviour as Big Tobacco, increasing their profits and market share at the cost of human lives.

The stats are pretty scary. While Natasha Harris died in a tragic and humiliating manner, in the very same year another 18 million people died from complications relating to high blood pressure and blood sugar, cholesterol and obesity.

"Much of [this] could be attributed to the consumption of ultraprocessed foods and drinks," Rob Moodie and Bruce Neal wrote in The Lancet.

They believe self-regulation is failing, and show how the alcohol and processed food industries are behaving in much the same way as Big Tobacco, lobbying governments and disputing scientific evidence to protect their ever-expanding products and market share.

The coroner and Natasha’s husband both believe warning labels should be put on Coke. Her family has said they did not believe her Coke consumption could be dangerous, because there are no warnings on the product.

When I told one of my libertarian friends I was writing about Prof Moodie and Neal’s report, he was pissed off.

“I'm just imagining it...,” he wrote. "Science says govt should take over all our food and drink choices! Mandates and rations all round! It's science! A study said it so it must be so!”

Now despite the slightly worrying inference that science is not to be trusted (yeah, you’d think after the whole “tobacco is good for you, don’t listen to the scientists … unless they’re paid for by the tobacco industry” era, people would be a little embarrassed to associate themselves with that kind of attitude), he raises a serious point.

How much regulation of companies is ok, and how much of our unhealthy lifestyles should be left up to us?

Anyone who has tried to navigate a supermarket aisle while on a diet knows how difficult it can be to even fully understand what you are putting in your body.

And as multinational food producers grow, they bump out local, fresh food providers and replace them with their own, ultraprocessed, cheaper products. Already, the top ten food companies produce 50 per cent of what Americans eat. And internationally the top ten companies produce 15 per cent of the whole world’s food, the Lancet paper says.

As these companies grow, it’s only going to get harder, more expensive, and more niche, to want to regularly eat the type of foods our bodies need to stay healthy.

But what is the answer? In the case of tobacco – which is directly responsible for the deaths of so many of its consumers, and has built a market out of misleading advertising and corrupt lobbying – it seems fair enough to say that we want to put individual people’s health over the rights of industry to continue selling its brands (say, in the case of plain packaging).

But what about food, a product we actually need to stay alive? Strict regulation of food companies flies in the face of the commitment to market freedom that underpins both major political parties in Australia, and which many people believe strongly in.

There is clearly a balance to be struck between our health, the quality and length of our lives, and the ability of legitimate companies to act freely, innovate and make profits and jobs (although I don't buy the argument it's a straight government intervention vs individual choice issue: often regulation gives people more choice, when it forces industry to give them more info about what is actually in their food).

Where you fall in this debate cuts down into some pretty deep political beliefs.

And it doesn’t just stop at regulation of industry. As I’ve written about here, we are now learning more about the ways in which early life poverty could change our most fundamental genetic characteristics, a process known as epigenetics.

These emerging findings are “politicising researchers like never before,” the chief executive of the public health association says.

Poverty and health are deeply intertwined, and it’s clear that it’s not just our individual choices that govern what we put into our bodies.

The question is, are we willing to make the political choices that might to turn out to be the most effective in dealing with these issues?

*I look forward to the series of opinion pieces jumping to her defence, a la Chrissie Swan, defending her against the apparent barrage of commentary saying it shouldn’t be her choice to decide what she puts in her body while pregnant.

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