Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hold the Pickles and the Hypocrisy

The NY Post had a wonderful story yesterday about how the NYC Department of Health-you know, the agency that is waging war against fast food-is issuing vouchers for, well, fast food in order to get the folks in for their TB appointments: "Maybe fatty foods aren't so bad after all. While Mayor Bloomberg was banning trans fats and requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts, his Health Department was dishing out free coupons to McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken, The Post has learned. Since 1993, eight years before Bloomberg took office, the agency has been giving out $5 vouchers to the fast-food joints, along with round-trip MetroCards and coupons to variety stores, to encourage tuberculosis patients to return to clinics around the city for six-month treatment programs."

How embarrassing! But there has to be a good explanation for this rank hypocrisy, right? Here's the DOH mea culpa: "The assistant commissioner in charge of the TB program, Chrispin Kambili, defended the vouchers' success in reducing the highly contagious disease. "One of the things that people found attractive for them to come to the clinics was that they got food coupons," Kambili said. "When you give people enablers or incentives, you have a better follow-up index."

What an excellent response-kind of an exact replica of the business model that most bodega owners and fast food operators in low income neighborhoods utilize; you know, finding out what the people like to consume-rather than what they perhaps ought to eat-and then selling it to them in order to be successful and make money. Likewise, DOH employs a successful strategy of using where the people's tastes actually lie in order to be successful-not to make money, but to ensure that its TB program achieves its objectives.

Some, however see the hypocrisy in this approach, since it so starkly contradicts the passionate effort of the agency to wean low income folks off of fast food. As one former employee told the Post: "It's a big hypocrisy when they've been campaigning against people eating that stuff," the ex-employee said. The hypocrisy is that the city launches a campaign, as you well know, of making restaurants list calories and all that, while at the same time they themselves are proliferating free McDonald's incentive cards."

Makes perfect sense to us-if, that is, you want to be a real world success, and not simply theoretically and politically correct. And the lesson here is-just as it is with the failed menu labeling regulation-that you need to educate the folks in order to change their behavior. This involves treating them as functional adults who can think and act for themselves. Maybe if you do, and people's attitudes change, and their behavior is altered, you can give away broccoli vouchers and still get the folks returning for their TB treatment.