Don’t Let Them Eat Cake

In Great Britain, the chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency, Professor Susan Jebb of the University of Oxford, is mightily concerned about the nation’s health and the obesity epidemic affecting many Brits. Among the targets of her ire are people who bring cake into the office–something she considers to be harmful as exposing your co-workers to secondhand smoke.

Professor Jebb’s basic point is that you simply can’t rely on the personal willpower of people who are exposed to the tantalizing prospect of free cake. The Times article linked above quotes her as follows: “’We all like to think we’re rational, intelligent, educated people who make informed choices the whole time and we undervalue the impact of the environment,’ she said. ‘If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them. Now, OK, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.’” She raised the smoking issue because passive smoking harms others, and “exactly the same is true of food.” The upshot, in her view, is that Great Britain needs to provide a “supportive environment” to help individuals avoid bad choices that lead to weight gain.

Although Professor Jebb specifically singled out cake at the office as an example of the prevalence of bad food options at every turn, the bottom line for her is that Great Britain needs to regulate food advertising. She notes: “At the moment we allow advertising for commercial gain with no health controls on it whatsoever and we’ve ended up with a complete market failure because what you get advertised is chocolate and not cauliflower.”

If Professor Jebb is hoping to get to a a society where cauliflower is vigorously advertised, I predict her efforts are doomed to failure. I also predict that her fellow Brits won’t look kindly on any potential restrictions on a co-worker’s ability to bring cake into the office.

Putting aside time-honored employee birthday cake events, people who bring leftover cake to the office want to get it out of their homes so they won’t be tempted by it, and people who eat cake at the office like to have a treat now and then. I’m not sure that trying to regulate cake offerings is going to prevent obesity, if that cake is then consumed at home rather than at the office. I don’t think regulating TV or billboard or radio advertising is going to get there, either, so long as cake mix is sold in stores and candy and snacks are available at the point of purchase to tempt people into taking the road to perdition.

The bottom line on obesity is that we need to build up the willpower of individuals, and incentivize them to watch their weight. Restricting cake at the office isn’t really getting at the root cause.

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