The National Automatic Merchandising Association has announced that the much-discussed question of the obesity of the American public will be the subject of an educational session at this fall's National Expo. This announcement is timely, because there are some disquieting aspects to the subject.
The idea that there is one ideal diet, that government knows what it is, and that legislative and regulatory action is necessary to penalize food producers and consumers for deviating from it has been around for a while. Supposed public-interest groups have been assailing a wide range of cuisines - Chinese, Italian, Greek , and a number of foodservice industry segments, such as hamburger restaurants, for many years now. The National Restaurant Association has devoted its considerable public relations resources to fighting back skillfully.
More recently, schools have come under fire for making supposedly undesirable foods and beverages available to students. While vending has been mentioned unfavorably in these attacks, a principal target seems to be snack bars run by the schools themselves. And concern over soft drink vending in schools has given operators a strong talking-point in seeking to install milk vending machines.
The vending industry was an early target, when it was accused of forcing "junk food" on its clientele in the early 1970s. At that time, NAMA retained a nutritional consultant, Dr. Fergus Clydesdale, to make operators familiar with dietary concepts and enable them to answer location questions with informed common sense. Thus, operators with long memories who survey the current situation may be excused for experiencing what the often-quoted Yogi Berra famously described as "dÃ©jÃ vu all over again."
However, we think it's worth considering some of the events that have taken place between the leveling of those early "junk food" charges and the opening of the current offensive. We do not set much store by conspiracy theories, but it is possible that something is going on here that needs frank public discussion.
A number of years ago, a highly regarded full-line vendor in the Midwest led a successful campaign to prevent his city from outlawing cigarette vending machines. We asked him how many cigarette venders he ran, and he told us that he did not run any; he subcontracted that business out, when a location wanted cigarettes. We asked him why, then, he had taken the lead in opposing the cigarette vending ban.
He replied that, if the state can outlaw the sale of one legal product through vending machines, the door is open for banning or restricting the sale of any other legal product.
This concern over setting a precedent is worth keeping in mind, in light of what has happened to the tobacco industry over the past decade. All the controversy about smoking and health finally came to a point that, we think, had not been evident to many of the parties involved in the discussion: if the product can be associated with some harm to the consumer in the eyes of a jury, then the producer is liable to tremendous punitive damages. This immediately benefits the attorneys who represent the plaintiffs, and then may be exploited by state governments who see the opportunity to create a new revenue stream.
This needs to be kept in mind when considering the current barrage of charges that the food industry's products and marketing practices are responsible for obesity considered as a public health crisis. The food industry's trade associations, and sensible journalists, have been dealing with these charges in the traditional way, regarding them as continuing manifestations of anti-business, anti-free market sentiment by ideologues whose principles were formed during the late 1960s (or early '30s).
That is a reasonable assessment of motive, but it's possible that certain parties are buying into the argument for reasons much more practical than philosophical. While the industry defends the right of the American consumer to make unconstrained choices, its opponents may be less interested in freedom and constraint than in large amounts of money. New rules may be in effect that the traditional players do not wholly understand.
We are not sure what can be done about this, other than to keep it in mind, and to remind everyone who will listen that "who rides a tiger can never dismount."