PHOTOGRAPHER Jean Paul Molyneaux

For decades, Americans have heard about a growing epidemic of obesity across the nation. It’s an issue tied to food consumption, public health and government spending — but should the government have a role in addressing it? We asked two Cal Poly faculty members — a professor of economics and a professor of marketing — to discuss their very different perspectives on this question.


Michael Marlow, Ph.D., is a professor of economics with research focusing on the economic effects of government spending, taxation and regulatory policy. He has published more than 75 articles in research journals including Applied Economics, Review of Economics and Statistics, and the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. He has also written about public policy for news outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Economist.

Brennan Davis, Ph.D., is an associate professor of marketing, specializing in connecting large datasets with questions about market research. He has been published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing (JPP&M) and the Journal of Business Research. His article in the American Journal of Public Health won the 2009 Best Paper Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and one of his articles in JPP&M won the 2014 Kinnear/JPP&M Award from the American Marketing Association.

PHOTOGRAPHER Jean Paul Molyneaux
Professor Brannan Davis, Marketing

I think that there’s a natural disadvantage in the government doing the things that Brennan is talking about. When a company tries to introduce those things to help consumers lose weight and that product doesn’t work, they either change it or get rid of it. But when government does that, there’s no profit motive. No one’s job is on the line. So they tend to try to enforce what they think should work without finding out whether it does.

Taxes are one example. When we’ve tried to discourage soda or tobacco consumption by adding taxes, consumers who really love those products might cut back consumption a little, but nowhere near what the government would expect.


I have a different perspective, and it has to do with the science that does go into that policy advice. The experiments that we as researchers do, if done right, actually do provide a lot of insight about what’s happening in the real world. One researcher I’ve worked with, the former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, was able to scientifically show that environmental factors in a restaurant contribute to how much food customers eat. Empirical evidence shows moderate to strong evidence that marketing variables, like advertising and product placement, have an impact on what children choose to eat. And there’s a body of evidence that shows that anti-smoking marketing messages were successful over much of the same period that the obesity epidemic was growing.

I have a different perspective, and it has to do with the science that does go into that policy advice. The experiments that we as researchers do, if done right, actually do provide a lot of insight about what’s happening in the real world. One researcher I’ve worked with, the former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, was able to scientifically show that environmental factors in a restaurant contribute to how much food customers eat. Empirical evidence shows moderate to strong evidence that marketing variables, like advertising and product placement, have an impact on what children choose to eat. And there’s a body of evidence that shows that anti-smoking marketing messages were successful over much of the same period that the obesity epidemic was growing.

I have a different perspective, and it has to do with the science that does go into that policy advice. The experiments that we as researchers do, if done right, actually do provide a lot of insight about what’s happening in the real world. One researcher I’ve worked with, the former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, was able to scientifically show that environmental factors in a restaurant contribute to how much food customers eat. Empirical evidence shows moderate to strong evidence that marketing variables, like advertising and product placement, have an impact on what children choose to eat. And there’s a body of evidence that shows that anti-smoking marketing messages were successful over much of the same period that the obesity epidemic was growing.


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