DETROIT – Nearly two-thirds of Michigan residents are considered overweight, making Michigan the 10th fattest state in the country. It is a trend that state lawmakers are trying to change and that might include taxing the foods that are making them fat.
The state has already instituted laws that force restaurants to publish calorie counts and make schools offer healthy choices for school lunches. The idea of taxing sweets, non-diet sodas, and fast food has been thrown around in the state legislature as a possible way to not just curb the burgeoning obesity problem, but to also generate revenue.
“Obesity is a function of lifestyle and opportunities,” said Damon Warren, a Detroit native currently living in Chicago. “If you want folks to reduce their weight, especially young people, you’ve got to provide recreational opportunities – recreation centers, parks, etc. – and also curb the liquor store/fast-food culture, especially in the inner-city.”
Obesity in Michigan has nearly doubled in the last 16 years, from 18.1 percent in 1995 to 31.7 percent. For the black community – Detroit, a city that is 90 percent black, is one of the nation’s fattest cities – this is especially problematic as such issues as high blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease are just a few of the myriad of health issues that arise from obesity.
”(Obesity) is such a Catch-22, but I think it starts with the degeneration of the family unit,” said Carole Gist, 42, the 1990 Miss USA winner, and owner of Royal Physique Fitness, which runs fitness boot camps in and around the Metro Detroit area.
“There’s some fall out where people are left wounded and aren’t brought back to a healthy place. It manifests in dangerous living, risky behavior, or food is your friend instead of a human being. If food is my friend and I have an unrealistic view of food, and that’s my comforter. That’s what makes me feel warm and fuzzy.”
Gist, who is also a personal trainer for students and faculty at Wayne State University and a former athlete, has also battled obesity in the past, topping out at 248 pounds in 2002 – 12 years after her Miss USA victory. She rededicated herself to fitness after seeing a picture of herself at her peak weight.
“I used to be embarrassed to say it, but now I’m proud to say that I was able to come out of that,” she said. “I didn’t like the place that I was in. I was a very miserable and depressed housewife. When I was at home, I could hardly move. I didn’t have the will to get up off the couch. My son was born in 1997 and here it was in 2002 and I couldn’t keep saying that I just had a baby. Diabetes and high blood pressure run in my family and I said that is not going to be me. I’m not going out like that”
According to the Center For Science in the Public Interest, there are 25 states that have some form of tax on soft drinks which experts – including Gist – consider one of the leading causes of childhood obesity. The taxes range from a 6 percent sales tax to a 21 cents to $1 per-gallon tax on the syrup used to sweeten soda.
The taxes, however, have failed to do much to curb the problem. Similar efforts to curb smoking and alcohol consumption have not exactly panned out either.
“Has it really deterred smoking?” Gist said. “They keep driving up the price (on cigarettes) every day. Did prohibition work? I don’t that’s the way. A lot of it is ignorance. A lot of inner city kids don’t know what fresh (food) is. A lot of the grocery stores don’t carry fresh produce. It’s so expensive in the grocery store. Going to a farmer’s market they can probably get more, but if they don’t have the means to get out there and bring all of that back, it’s out of necessity.”
“Another piece would be to incentivize better eating habits like doubling food stamp funds for use with ‘healthier’ food options or better food sources, like buying vegetables from the Eastern Market instead of Doritos from the liquor store,” Warren said. “Michigan has got to get out of this ‘silver bullet’ mentality where all the eggs are placed in one basket as the ‘solution’. It’s lazy, counterproductive, and unrealistic.”
There are stores that do add incentives and discounts for buying healthier items. Metro Foodland, an independent market in northwest Detroit, introduced a healthy rewards program.
“We started a soft launch three months ago,” said James Hooks, the owner of Metro Foodland. “We’ve been passing out cards to see how the customers react to it. We also started putting signage around the store to let people know they can get a discount with their card.
“People started asking me for sugar-free cookies, because they knew where they were and we were selling out of them. Obviously, these people are diabetics, and you don’t want to cheat on your diet, so we got the sugar-free apple pies that started selling like crazy. So now we’ve got sugar-free muffins, sugar-free layer cakes, we’ve got all that stuff.”
If the laws were to pass, Michigan would stand to make up to $490 million in tax revenue. Earlier this year in Oregon, lawmakers failed in their attempt to put cigarette-style warning labels on high-calorie sodas that would’ve read: “Overconsumption of sugary beverages is linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”
Other failed bills would have prohibited selling drinks in containers larger than 12 ounces and developed nutrition standards for food sold in public buildings.
“Everyone needs to start taking a good hard look at what food is available and being pushed on people as healthy,” said Erin Carroll, an engineer at Ford Motor Company.
“You know what they could fix to help the childhood obesity problem? How about the lunches that the schools are serving to the kids? Go to a school website and look up the lunch menu. That food supposedly meets some kind of healthy meal standards.”
The food she is referring to includes nachos, pizza, hot dogs and chicken nuggets. Under a new federal law, school lunches will have more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and less fat. Many schools are even adding salad bars to their cafeterias.
Physical education programs in Michigan, which in recent years have been one of the casualties of cuts in education, are also sited as a contributing factor in childhood obesity. Schools in the state must offer gym classes, but there is no set time required, nor is it mandated for every grade. Some kids will not see the inside of a gym all year.
“When I was growing up, they made us go outside,” said Gist, who has two teenage children. “You had to find ways to entertain yourself and be creative. You ran, you played flag football, you climbed trees; you roller skated, or rode your bike. These kids…you can’t get them off the couch.”
How the state handles the obesity issues could be key to the overall health of the state both physically and economically, but the causes are difficult to nail down. Gov. Rick Snyder addressed the issue last week asking Michigan residents to begin exercising, eating better and getting regular medical checkups. He has even taken the initiative of starting an exercise program and lost six pounds in a week.
“We’re at the early stages of this,” Snyder said last week. “Time to hit the gas. Let’s go.”
For Carole Gist, who often trains people in three different gyms in a day, the work to lose the weight isn’t simply physical, it is also mental. She attributes a positive attitude to anyone being able to get into and stay in shape, but she also knows that behavioral changes are the beginning and moderation is key.
“It’s hard to pinpoint (obesity) on any one thing,” Gist said. “Most of these girls I see in these high schools, I wish I could just grab them and say I need you to start wearing the right dress size and I need you to stop eating those Doritos and put that pop down. The research is there. The data is there. The proof is there for those who lived it, eaten crappy foods and eaten healthy foods. The proof is there. You can have a honey bun, just not two or three. You cannot have a liter of Pepsi every day and think it’s going to be healthy.”