Government action could slow down or even reverse the obesity epidemic across the developed world — if the appropriate agencies more strictly regulated the fast-food marketplace, according to a new study just published.

Skeptical? You should be.

The study, which was published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO), suggested that if governments took action, they could prevent people from becoming overweight and obese, which would obviously mitigate such conditions with serious long-term consequences such as diabetes, heart diseases and cancer.

“Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide, with disastrous consequences for future public health and economic productivity,” said Roberto De Vogli, Associate Professor in the University of California-Davis Department of Public Health Sciences and the study leader.

According to classical economic theory, the “invisible hand of the market” is thought to be a positive influence, a collective dynamic responsive to consumer demand and capable of punishing bad actors that cause problems or inflict harm on society.

Like promoting obesity.

Nevertheless, the report suggested that anti-obesity regulations should include:

  • Economic incentives for growers to sell fresh foods
  • Disincentives for industries selling “ultra-processed foods” and soft drinks
  • Cutting subsidies to growers and producers using large amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics
  • Stronger regulation of fast-food advertising, especially to children

In theory — in theory — all of those measures have value. We’d all be better off if we ate more “fresh foods” and less fast food, and we’d all be safer if we never exceeded the speed limit or never “cruised” through a four-way stop.

But I think it’s been proven over the last century that despite strict, specific “regulations” prohibiting such behavior, compliance is often driven less by punitive threats and more by self-interest.

Which is shorthand for The Invisible Hand of the Marketplace.

By the way, an interesting side note to research is that one of the sources cited upfront as a “marker” of the fast-food density equals obesity theory was a study matching BMI (Body Mass Index) data with obesity rates in 26 countries.

Sounds impressive, right? Here’s the irony: Not only did De Vogli cite his own study, but the fast-food chain referenced in that study was Subway, which is touted by plenty of nutritional authorities as something of a “healthier” alternative to greasy burger restaurants and fried chicken chains.

The best of a bad lot, in other words.

Understanding the causes

Here’s the real problem with the theory that more regulations lead to better health. De Vogli’s research team analyzed the longitudinal impact of deregulation on obesity in the agricultural and food sectors, which, they argued, ends up increasing the number of fast food transactions, which leads to greater consumption of foods likely to exacerbate obesity.

Which doesn’t exactly qualify as rocket science. As the study’s authors themselves phrased it, “Rising fast food consumption has been a major determinant of population increases in BMI among high-income countries.”

Nobody disputes that. The question is, what to do about it?

Vogli, et al, suggested that, “Virtually all nations have undergone a process of market deregulation and globalization, especially in the last three decades.” So is that the answer, “re-regulation” of the marketplace? A reversal of globalization?

I can think of some potent reasons why both of those interventions might be a good idea, but not in terms of impacting the fast-food/obesity connection.

At least the study did not single out red meat and poultry as the chief culprits in triggering obesity, which is a welcome development.

However, the problem with a regulatory approach to public health, which assumes that bad behavior can be wrestled to the ground, if only government would pour on the pressure, is that public opinion must lead the way. Only when prevailing social sentiments have sufficiently evolved can regulations effectively codify proscribe behavior.

Take tobacco, for example. Although it took decades, eventually a majority of the public decided that smoking was unhealthy, that breathing secondhand smoke was equally offensive and that smoke-free workplaces and public spaces was a good idea. Keep in mind that nearly all of the laws and rules and ordinances prohibiting smoking in offices, restaurants and facilities were enacted by public referenda.

On the other hand, the track record of governments when the law attempts to restrict or ban behaviors deemed to be not in the public interest, whether alcohol decades ago or marijuana as is still going on, is decidedly less successful.

The solution to the obesity epidemic — which started, let’s not forget, as a result of government regulations in the 1980s that attempted to foster “healthier” dietary choices by demonizing fat and canonizing starch — is straightforward: It begins with smarter dietary choices and needs to be accompanied by more active lifestyles.

Those are trends that, like anti-smoking campaigns, are best advanced with initiatives led by the private sector, not by heavy-handed regulatory strictures.

I believe social mores are already trending that way, and that they’ll continue to accelerate in the decades ahead.

Public sectors opportunities to ameliorate the problem of obesity are myriad, but they don’t include telling fast-food customers what they can — and cannot — order.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.