Friday, July 31, 2009

Comparing addictions

Addiction may be defined as a “Compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance.” The subject of addiction has been explored and debated for many decades. We have come a long way in recognizing, understanding, and treating people with addictions of all sorts, but one thing is for sure, no therapist or society can eliminate addiction from the human condition. Most experts agree that you cannot truly help a friend or loved one through their addictive crisis until they are first ready to admit that there is a problem. This admission is an important first step because, clearly, why would anyone willingly remove a pleasurable part of their life unless they view it from the vantage point of having an ultimately negative or harmful result.

Still, as vital as the admission may be, it is only the first step on a long journey towards recovery and independence, a journey that will doubtlessly have many pitfalls along the way. However, well before any individual names their addiction or admits to its detrimental effects there is an awareness of an underlying fear that lurks just below the surface of their brash facade; a fear born from the supposition that the loss of a certain delight will cause immediate and possibly long lasting suffering to some small part of themselves that has been so carefully hidden and smothered behind the veil of normalcy.

I think it safe to say that we all have an addiction of one kind or another that gets us through the day. These may range from caffeine to chocolate to gambling to sex, but whatever our vice may be it is largely a question of degree that distinguishes the casual user from the dangerous addict who may go on to ruin themselves, and even their family, in pursuit of their chosen sin. We tend to label this sort of person as having an “addictive personality”. This label, while valid enough, is still a sweeping generalization. It serves us by giving a name to something that needs attention and treatment, thereby allowing motivated people to take the next step forward, but at the same time this label makes the rest of us feel a little bit better about ourselves. After all, we may have our own quirks, compulsions, and cravings but obviously they aren’t interfering with our ability to do our jobs or be good parents, so we must not be addicted – meaning “we could quit whenever we want”.

I’ll never forget a discussion that I had years ago with a close friend who was seeking help for his addiction to alcohol. After much listening I said, “I can understand liking something but I’ve never understood needing it. I guess my mind just doesn’t operate that way”. He countered by saying “Well, try giving up all processed sugar for just one week”. As soon as he said this I a felt a lump form in my throat, it was not that he had stated it as a challenge, but I knew myself well enough to know that I would have to give it a try, and as someone with a sweet tooth I also knew that it wouldn’t be easy. In fact it was harder than I imagined. When we are free to reach for something anytime, anywhere, it doesn’t take such prominence in our thoughts; it is just there for the taking. But as soon as we make a pact with ourselves to eschew this same item from our thoughts, fingers, and mouths it then takes on such colossal proportion that for the first few days it may be hard to focus on anything else.

Expanding the sin tax

Like coffee and alcohol, most food addictions are seen as fairly benign cravings just as long as they can be held in check. Both food and alcohol are associated with sensory pleasures, social interaction, and forgivable over-indulgence at birthdays and holidays. We all enjoy laughing with friends over dinner as we rationalize another piece of cheese cake or one last beer. Nicotine, on the other hand, has come to be thought of as nothing but a killer, “a disgusting habit” that has no reasonable rationalization and no fundamental value. As a culture we feel justified in our almost violent opposition to cigarette smoke because it has been proven, beyond all shadow of doubt, to not only kill the intentional user but also severely damage the lungs of the innocent bystander. Therefore, politicians, teachers, and the public have gone to great lengths to not only keep cigarettes out of the hands of children but also ban them from restaurants, buses, and most public places.

In essence Americans have come to view the cigar and cigarette smoker as a second class citizen who has given up the right to smoke wherever they wish; indeed, by smoking even ten feet away from us they are said to be infringing on our civil rights by forcing us to breathe in their foul smelling, habit causing, noxious fumes. Since cigarette smokers are in the minority they are an easy mark for politicians. Denouncing both the dependency and the industry not only galvanizes support but it often brings in more state revenue through the “sin tax”. When the majority views a habit as an outright sin, with no possible good coming from it, then common sense dictates that the user should pay more, both as a compensation for health care costs and also as an incentive to quit.

In my home state of N.Y. the cigarette tax was recently raised by $1.25, bringing it up to $2.75 per pack, making it the highest in the nation. Overall it was a very popular move, "The cigarette excise tax increase is critical in saving lives and helping us reach our goal of 1 million fewer smokers by 2010," said State Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D., "We expect the $1.25 cigarette tax increase will prevent more than 243,000 New York kids alive today from ever starting smoking." Whatever our opinion of the sin tax may be statistics have shown that it works. According to the N.Y. State Dept. of Health, “Raising the price of cigarettes is the most effective way to get smokers to quit”.

To be fair and consistent it would then follow that if any product being sold on the open market were proven to be harmful to both the user and the innocent bystander it should merit a higher tax. As we have seen, factory raised livestock has become a lose – lose situation for everyone, with the possible exception of the corporate hierarchy and a few stockholders. While it may be easier to prove the distinctive health problems associated with alcohol or cigarettes, neither of these vices can touch the cumulative aberrations that the livestock industry pushes onto the planet. Additionally, these environmental toxins are not contained within our seas, skies, or soil, the contamination leaches into our bodies through our drinking water, air and food (at this point grain and vegetables as well as meat).

By measuring the level of toxicity in the average American’s blood or the average mother’s breast milk it can be said without exaggeration that the nitrates, dioxins, pesticides, mercury, and a host of other post-industrial chemicals are making their way into our bodies whether we eat an all organic diet or not. It has been shown that more toxins can be found in human breast milk than in any beverage sold in America. It has been also been shown that there are well over one-hundred man made chemicals now present in the human bloodstream that were never even known to us before 1940. Worse yet, tests have shown that even babies under a year old have high levels of chemicals swimming around in their bloodstream. "We are in an epidemic of environmentally mediated disease among American children today," said Dr. Leo Trasande, assistant director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. "Rates of asthma, childhood cancers, birth defects and developmental disorders have exponentially increased, and it can't be explained by changes in the human genome. So what has changed? All the chemicals we're being exposed to."

While there are obviously many industries that contribute to the adverse health of Americans, the food industry is especially culpable due to the increased scope of their pollutants in recent years and also due to the simple fact that everyone must eat and drink. To cite just one example: dioxin, a known carcinogen, often travels for many miles before settling in ground water or grassy fields. Compared to most toxins, dioxin breaks down very slowly, which is why we find them so often in the fat cells of animals and eventually people. The FDA warns us that “Although dioxin is an environmental contaminant, most dioxin exposure occurs through the diet, with over 95% coming through dietary intake of animal fats (including meat, fish, and dairy)”.
Similar to the cigarette companies, food producers understand that if they don’t win over potential consumers by the time they are young teenagers then they are less prone to buy their products as adults. From cookies to cows, children and parents are constantly bombarded by multi-layered advertising aimed at creating both a taste for an unnecessary food as well the illusion of health. Unlike rum or cigars, most parents will not fill their freezers and cabinets with a food unless there is at least some health rationale. This is why food manufacturers spend billions of dollars each year trying to convince hard to please kids that their food is fun and parents that their food is healthy.

As we all know, cigarettes are cancer causing and immediately damaging to the throat and lungs, which is why the government wisely intervened, passing laws banning television advertising of cigarettes and sales to minors. But consider for a moment what would happen if the manufacturing of cigarettes was found to not only harm the individual but also pollute American communities that bordered the factory. My guess is that policy makers would jump on this opportunity to pass even more stringent laws, either requiring cigarette companies to clean up their plants or stop production altogether. With public sentiment on their side this threat would be both popular and expedient.

When it comes to large scale beef, poultry, and pork producers, however, the very mention by any elected leader of new taxes or increased government regulation creates an onslaught of negative rhetoric coming from a very popular industry. Just as the biggest oil producers spent decades disseminating false information about the link between carbon emissions and global warming, so to has the food industry spent much of their time convincing the public that their factories pose only the most minimal threat to the environment. This rhetoric is believed, in part, because the public wants to believe it. Whereas most people don’t care to believe that cigarettes are healthy, they do have a vested interest in believing that their meat is not only healthy but innocuous. Sadly, this over consumption of animal products makes it very difficult for most Americans to conceive of paying more money for local, organic meat much less take the leap towards vegetarianism. Therefore, if we ever expect to offset the numerous negative effects of our meat based culture we’ll have to begin with some changes to our national food policy.

For the sake of education and fairness, one possible compromise might be for the federal government to require that all packaged meat must be labeled with its origin of production. In the grand scheme of things this is a very small step forward, but if we can look at a small plastic toy and see if it was made in China or the U.S. then why shouldn’t consumers have the right to know if their meat was raised on a factory farm or small local farm. At the very least this initial step will make it possible for all concerned consumers to do a little research of their own and find out how far their meat was shipped and what type of growing methods were used.

Another idea would be to impose the same sin tax on factory farmed meat as we now have on cigarettes. This tax could easily be raised or lowered according to the size of the farm and the average level of industrial pollutants that the farm generates. Not only would this raise state revenue, as with the cigarette tax, but it would motivate corporate farms to clean up their act before a catastrophe occurs.

In recent months the beef and dairy industry was furious and frightened due the governments discussion of a greenhouse gas tax. And even though the EPA claimed to have no interest in taxing beef and dairy farmers the media had a lot of fun ridiculing the government for meddling into the livelihood of the humble, hard working farmers who supply our meat and milk, and who would likely be put out of business if each of their cows were taxed up to $175 for belching and farting. While I agree that small sustainable livestock farms should not be further taxed, especially when they are able to recycle their waste back into the land, there is a lot to be said for taxing the cows raised on CAFO’s. If we limit the new cow tax to factory farms then the price of the meat from these farms will have to rise accordingly. In a bad economy any price hike may sound scary at first, but please consider that the price of local organic meat and dairy remains high simply because these farmers take care to treat their livestock as animals, rather than as plastic. If the price of factory farmed meat and dairy must go up based on a federal tax that would go towards cleaning up the eco-damage that they have been creating for decades, then I am all for it.

For many reasons, a sin tax on factory raised meat will be difficult, yet not impossible, to push through Congress. The main hindrance being the advocates that the beef and dairy industry has in many key states where feedlots are big business and major political supporters. Secondly, this new tax would require many respected dieticians and policy makers to label meat as a health hazard, on par with cigarettes and alcohol. Since most mainstream nutritionists agree that meat has both good and bad points, unless consumed in large quantities, they will be reluctant to label it as an unhealthy food. With a little forethought, however, this point should be easy to refute. Since the real “sin” in eating meat is the way in which it is now being produced, our representatives should be able to look past the argument of whether it is nourishing or not and implement a tax based solely on the health risks we all incur merely by living on earth.

1 comment:

junayad khan said...

Hi, just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this post. It was
practical. Keep on posting!