The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale is the home institution of Kelly Brownell, the godfather of the movement to institute Twinkie taxes (or junk food taxes) on certain foods and drinks. The Center, backed by money from the “public health” community’s closely aligned think tank and cash machine, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, promotes taxes and regulations on specific foods and beverages with research and messaging assistance for bureaucrats and politicians while presenting itself as a non-ideological scientific research center.
The Rudd Center is the result of a collaboration among Yale University, Leslie Rudd (the proprietor of the high-priced, upper-class Dean and Deluca grocery chain), and Kelly Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale. The Center uses Yale’s prestige to advocate for draconian government regulations of the food and beverage industries and to develop “legal strategies” to attack restaurants and food companies.The Center is a policy advocacy organization that offers messaging assistance to supporters and policymakers and tracks policy proposals that affect what it calls the “toxic food environment.” Interestingly, while the Center and Brownell promote an environmental theory as the cause of overeating and obesity, Brownell’s own theory of the individual diet, the “Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships and Nutrition&rdquo (LEARN) Program, relies on controlling self-defeating attitudes.
In addition to receiving $5 million in seed money from the Rudd Foundation, the Rudd Center has also received $5 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a private foundation seeded by a Johnson and Johnson heir that holds $800 million of stock in the medical equipment and pharmaceutical company. RWJF is an institution dedicated to developing and advocating for command-and-control policies that reduce consumer choice and increase the power of bureaucrats in the health system and the health environment. Among the strategies it has endorsed for reducing obesity is the adoption of food “pricing strategies”—i.e. “sin” taxes and “virtue” subsidies—to influence food item consumption.
The Center’s Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity Steering Committee reads like a “Who’s Who” of big-government public health activists. Former New York City food-cop-in-chief Thomas Frieden served on it until he was appointed to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: His successor, Thomas Farley, replaced him. The Steering Committee is also stacked with RWJF-funded researchers and staffers and formerly included an RWJF board member.
With that makeup, it’s not hard to figure out what the Rudd Center blames for the nation’s weight problems and what it proposes should be done. The Center promotes draconian marketing regulations for food products and most prominently taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages while advocating within the scientific community for the notion of “food addiction.” Additionally, the Center develops and promotes legal strategies for addressing concerns that its preferred policies violate the Constitution and for enabling lawsuits against restaurants and other food companies.
A major part of the Rudd Center’s mission is providing big-brother public health campaigns with messaging assistance. In a 2007 article for The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, Brownell and Marlene Schwartz, the Rudd Center’s Director of Research and School Programs, wrote, “How the obesity issue is framed is of the utmost importance to how it is addressed.”
Later in the same article — after complaining that Americans are insufficiently collectivist-minded to make public intervention easy — Brownell and Schwartz proposed ways to “sell” their diagnosis and treatment for obesity. Why “sell”? The vast majority of Americans don’t believe the Rudd Center’s claim that food companies are responsible for obesity. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found only 19.4 percent of Americans agreed that the “actions of fast food and grocery industries” were the main cause of obesity. Over 60 percent responded that “personal choices about eating and exercising” were the main cause.
To “sell” the diagnosis, Brownell and Schwartz argued that activists should begin “a concerted research program on framing and persuasion” — a.k.a. spin — to test “the power of different messages and frames to gain public support for the idea that the [food and lifestyle, but principally food] environment is responsible for the increase in obesity.” The article betrays another problem with the Rudd Center’s approach: It is ideologically committed to a particular view of the obesity problem. Brownell has publicly advocated the “toxic food environment” theory of obesity in those exact terms since at least 1996, when he used the phrase in an interview with The New York Times. Interestingly, Brownell continued promoting the personal responsibility-focused LEARN program despite holding this contradictory view.
The Rudd Center believes Americans should pay more for their food. Brownell has called for an end to a “cheap food model” and was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “What you want is to reverse the fact that healthy food is too expensive and unhealthy food is too cheap, and the soda tax is a start [emphasis added].”
The Rudd Center serves as a hybrid political boot camp and public relations house for big government activists and trades on Brownell’s standing in a “public health” world that is dominated by anti-choice thinking. The motivation of the Center appears to be largely ideological, bringing to mind an old warning from C.S. Lewis: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive” — for “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Kelly Brownell: Public Health’s Captain Ahab
Brownell first proposed taxing unhealthy foods in the early 1990s, and since that time he has co-authored editorials pushing this hobby-horse with Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Thomas Frieden (then of the NYC Department of Health, now in charge of the CDC). The Rudd Center is devoted to putting this policy into law.
Brownell has not wavered from the position that “fat taxes” are an effective policy tool against obesity. He’s only wavered on the size and targets of the necessary tax.
Brownell wrote in a 1994 New York Times op-ed:
Congress and state legislatures could shift the focus to the environment by taxing foods with little nutritional value. Fatty foods would be judged on their nutritive value per calorie or gram of fat. The least healthy would be given the highest tax rate.
In 2000, he co-authored a call to tax “soft drinks, candy, gum, and snack foods” with Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest:
A steep tax would probably reduce the consumption of the taxed foods and could be used to generate funding to subsidize healthful foods […] there are mixed opinions on the feasibility and desirability of a steep tax. In contrast, a small tax may be more politically feasible and still could generate significant revenues to support health measures.
In 2009, he co-authored a call to tax soda with then-New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden which promoted the “penny per ounce” talking point:
Given the heavy consumption of sugared beverages, even small taxes will generate substantial revenue, but only heftier taxes will significantly reduce consumption.
Later in 2009, Brownell attempted to soften criticism of the proposal with another call to tax soda and related sugary beverages, co-authored by Frieden’s replacement Thomas Farley and others:
As with any public health intervention, the precise effect of a tax cannot be known until it is implemented and studied, but research to date suggests that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would have strong positive effects on reducing consumption.
When in 2010 research funded by the tax-endorsing Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed weakness in the case for sugary beverage taxes, Brownell told TIME:
The fact is that nobody has been able to see how people will really respond under these conditions.
Brownell has additionally served on the scientific advisory board to CSPI’s flagship publication, the Nutrition Action Healthletter.
In the 1980s, Brownell developed a diet program called LEARN, an acronym for “Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships and Nutrition.” He published a book detailing the program.
According to a feature on LEARN published in The New York Times, the diet program is dependent on people “identifying self-defeating attitudes — [Brownell] calls them ‘attitude traps’ — and devising effective strategies to prevent a relapse.”
In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Brownell argued along similar lines that weight-loss plateaus could be overcome: “But you can ride [plateaus] out if you can distract yourself and increase self-control [emphasis added].”
This is a profound irony in light of Brownell’s adamancy in promoting the ultimate “attitude trap”; namely, that lifestyle changes are near-impossible in light of the “toxic food environment.” Brownell trashes personal responsibility publicly while promoting a diet which relies on building up one’s personal responsibility.
The public relations activity of the Rudd Center focuses on “repositioning” people as victims of society and excusing their lack of personal responsibility. To do this, the Center promotes the adoption of an addiction model of individual overeating and an “obesogenic environment” model of population obesity. Additionally, Rudd Center publications promote the idea that the obese should become a governmentally protected victim class.
The two tactics are inextricably linked. Without “victim” status for the obese, the Rudd Center cannot blame the “toxic food environment” and dismiss issues of personal irresponsibility. Brownell and Schwartz write:
The prevailing emphasis on personal responsibility for obesity can divert attention from needed public health interventions, and also leads to widespread stigma directed at overweight individuals.
Rebecca Puhl, a Rudd Center-affiliated researcher, wrote in the American Journal of Public Health:
That is, unless people have adequate resources (e.g., access to affordable, healthy foods) to resist the obesogenic environment, it is too difficult (and unjust) to expect individual actions to be successful. Thus, although this approach does not ignore personal responsibility, the emphasis is shifted from personal blame to an issue of social justice.
In the long run, Brownell has expressed hope that the Rudd Center’s work will “change the legal landscape” around food. By recasting the obese as a protected class victimized by the food industry, Brownell hopes to reshape the debate over food policy and enable lawsuits against food companies. And at the end of the road, no doubt, are expert witness retainers for the Center’s researchers.
The Sophisticates Can Look After Themselves
Perhaps fittingly for an organization funded in large part by a purveyor of fine wines, teas, and organic foods, the Rudd Center identifies malicious food products in the mass market but pays scant attention to up-market retailers. Indeed, the Rudd Center’s most prominent policy, the “penny-per-ounce” sugar sweetened beverage tax, does not apply to beverages that primarily appeal to up-market buyers. The Rudd Center supports taxes containing a “latte loophole” which exempts coffee grounds, tea bags, and coffee prepared to-order at a coffee shop. But people can sweeten or add caloric milk to homemade coffee and teas, suggesting that a prejudice against the “unrefined” taste for soda is just as relevant to Rudd Center policymaking as concern for health.
Likewise, alcoholic beverages such as wine are exempted from these taxes despite containing calories. Both the café beverage loophole and the alcoholic beverage loophole are excused despite some coffee drinks and alcoholic beverages containing more calories per ounce than sugar-sweetened beverages.
Perhaps fittingly given the loopholes the Rudd Center will permit, Leslie Rudd, the Rudd Center’s namesake and benefactor, is a premium gin distiller, highly rated Napa Valley vintner, alcoholic beverage distributor, and grocer to the upper class. Among the offerings from Rudd’s grocery Dean and Deluca’s online shopping service are (as of May 2012):
- A 1.5 lbs. lobe of foie gras: $120
- An “International Caviar Sampler”: $350
- Four pints of “Luxury Sorbet”: $60
- A “Seasonal Assortment” of three pints of ice cream: $45
- Dry Aged Beef Burgers (3 lbs.): $55 ($18.33/lb.)
- A 3 lbs. rack of lamb: $160 ($53.33/lb.)
The wine selections at Dean and Deluca include red wines priced in excess of $300 per bottle. It should go without saying that anyone who can afford to pay those prices can easily afford a “penny-per-ounce” tax on a soft drink without changing his or her behavior, if one even applied to his or her choices.
The Rudd Center is also willing to promote sugar-sweetened beverage taxes that do not tax coffees prepared for the consumer, even though these beverages can contain more calories than soft drinks. The Rudd Center conducted a 2010 webinar offering answers to questions on the soft drink taxes proposed that year. According to a summary of questions asked, café coffees prepared “individually for customers” were specifically exempt. Deference to supposedly aesthetically refined “yuppie” tastes is evident in this activity.
In the Rudd Center’s view, the refined consumer who buys a latte from a coffee shop every morning is apparently an adult, not an addict: The consumer who has a soda with lunch is little more than a child. That person is a victim who must be cured of an “addiction.” In public statements, Brownell puts himself in the adult class of consumer. In response to questions during the promotional tour for his book Food Fight about his personal weight gain, the AP reported:
Brownell himself […] sports a good-sized paunch thanks, he says, to a book project that has kept him relatively sedentary and snack-prone for the last year or so.
Brownell was directly confronted on the issue of his own weight gain in 2003 on National Public Radio. He neither denied the role of his own decision making in his weight gain nor claimed to be an addict or a victim.
Brownell told O, The Oprah Magazine the following for a feature on weight control scientists’ personal diet and exercise habits:
For me weight is a real issue. It bounces up and down by 30 to 40 pounds. I have to be very vigilant because I’m one of those who eat more when stressed. I try to manage the pressures in my life by making time to relax and being physically active-I play tennis, walk, run, or bike-and I try to make healthy food choices (lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains). I like to think of food as something that nurtures me and makes me healthy rather than seeing my diet as restrictive.
The Prohibitionist Impulse
Although in public statements Rudd Center officials are adamant that they do not wish to repeat with non-alcoholic beverages the mistake that was Prohibition, Rudd Center scholars have written unmistakably (non-alcoholic beverage) Prohibitionist policy proposals in works for the public health community. Jennifer Pomeranz, the Rudd Center’s Director of Legal Initiatives, offers a series of policies in a Journal of Public Health Policy article that would be allowable under United States law. She considers soda Prohibition as possible but unlikely, with no comment as to its possible effectiveness or drawbacks:
It is unlikely that a government would ban all sugary drinks […],but some countries and states have banned or negotiated with companies to remove from retail sale specific beverages that may pose a public health risk.
Unsurprisingly, the Rudd Center swiftly endorsed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s move to ban the sale of all sugar-sweetened beverages over 16 ounces in restaurants and other eateries.
Given the stridency with which the Rudd Center targets all sugary beverages, it is unclear where the Center would draw the line between a “specific beverage that may pose a public health risk” eligible for Prohibition and licit drinks. And this suggests that it finds all limits up to and including total sugar-sweetened beverage Prohibition to be potential possibilities. Certainly, it gives the lie to the Rudd Center’s positioning of a “penny-per-ounce” tax as a “small price.”
Jumping to Conclusions
Rudd Center researchers have also expressed contempt for democratic restraints on bureaucracy. Pomeranz wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, “If an agency’s position conflicts with the political position of elected officials in a jurisdiction, those officials can obstruct agency activity.” In other words, bureaucratic edicts are presumed to be valid while representatives of the people are mere roadblocks.
Brownell wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that those policies should be enacted before all the evidence is available. Arguing on behalf of restaurant calorie labeling, the effectiveness of which is highly disputed, he wrote:
For some of the most important public health problems today, society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty.
Editors’ Note: We put much thought into the matter of raising Brownell’s weight problems in this article. We feel it is justified because of his contradictory positions that while his own weight gain was caused by his own decisions, specifically his own choice to overeat, the “food environment” is responsible for the weight gain of others.