Sergei Diaghilev famously said to Jean Cocteau “surprise me”. We probably need a modern-day Diaghilev to say the same to inspire something new in the never-ending battles between the health thought police (aka as the public health lobby) and the food, alcohol and any other industry that markets anything but water, roughage and hair-shirts.

The Disney Channel has, however, managed to pull off a very successful PR coup that does “surprise” us even if on closer analysis it may not be that surprising at all. The channel announced last month it was introducing new nutrition standards for food advertisements on its US children’s channels. Products to be excluded include McDonald’s Happy Meals and Kellogg’s Fruit Loops. Ostensibly the decision seems to be in line with government policy across much of the Western world outside the US and the views of the public health lobby.

A key plank of the public health lobby’s agenda — along with higher taxes, regulations, bans, public scorn, labelling, infantilising consumers as totally lacking in any sense of personal responsibility and passive victims of nasty marketers — is a ban on advertising products they target. Obesity is the latest issue to get put through the agenda’s normal process and — while a walk through any US or Australian city, town or suburb is enough to convince you that it is a really very big problem — the problem with the problem is that after success with tobacco (a very good thing too) the public health lobby rolls out the same strategies and tactics against all the other products they target.

Indeed, the lobby never “surprises” you. For instance, one of the lobby’s most vocal members, Mike Daube, has recently written an article for Crikey blog Croakey saying differences between tobacco and alcohol are overstated and that they are much more alike than people think. This bit of over-reach could be as good a piece of news for the alcohol industry as the decision to tell Australians that having more than two standard drinks was bingeing.

In the US, however, much of the public health lobby agenda is very difficult to achieve due to the power of corporations, particularly agribusiness, over Congress and the US Constitution. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has managed to get around thiswith wide-ranging restrictions on various public health risks although the impact of this is limited by the fact that New York, like Los Angeles, is not the US. Michelle Obama has also adopted obesity as her “First Lady issue” and is running an impressive campaign around nutrition, exercise and the need for some personal responsibility.

The Disney Channel, in good corporate responsibility mode, has moved to help the campaign and launched the advertising guidelines initiative jointly with Michelle Obama. The announcement generated massive amounts of positive publicity in print, TV and online. The Financial Times estimated it had probably got millions of dollars of free publicity.

But the FT also looked a bit more closely at what was at stake. It quoted Kantar Media as saying the new guidelines would probably cost the Disney Channel about $US7.2 million a year. The channel’s worldwide revenues are $US7.6 billion. And while you won’t see McDonald’s Happy Meals advertised, the FT suggest McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets might pass muster.

Incidentally,  just by the way, Mike Daube, has recently written on DrinkTank that he and his lobby are not “anti-alcohol” and that any suggestion that they are is purely alcohol industry propaganda designed to undermine him and his colleagues. Unfortunately, the first online comment on the article was a supporter proudly proclaiming that they were very definitely anti-alcohol. Who needs friends like that?

*Declaration of interest: as Crikey readers know, the author tries to be fastidious about declarations of interest. But to save time and effort please accept the following as a standard and ongoing declaration that I have worked at some stage or other for almost everyone opposed by the public health lobby as well as the public health lobby itself.

Peter Fray

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