The Latest Proposed Risk Factor for Obesity: Product Placement?

This week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine includes an editorial written by Dr. Deborah Cohen and Dr. Susan Babey entitled "Candy at the Cash Register: A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease."

In the article, they argue that the food choices people make at the grocery store are not entirely under their control and would likely be different if they were more aware of making those choices. People don't have full control over where their gaze lands, and the best way to know what a person will buy is to determine what a person looks at the longest.

Product placement works

Enter the impulse buy, product placement, and the psychology behind many of the stocking choices made by supermarkets. As much as one-third of all supermarket sales are alleged to come from products placed at the end of an aisle.

Because supermarkets are geared towards encouraging customers to spend money and not to make healthy choices, the authors suggest that product placement be treated as a risk factor for obesity.

The analogy they use is to compare this to construction safety regulations:

"Although people could certainly stay away from the edges of balconies and not lean out of windows, mandatory railings and window guards protect them from falling ... [thus regulations could] govern the design and placement of foods in retail outlets to protect consumers."

This is hard to take seriously, but there is some substance here. Clearly, there are more profits to be had in the sale of unhealthy foods than in healthy foods. If the ends of aisles are indeed so profitable, all one has to do is look there to see what the supermarket is most desirous to see us buy.

Little surprise they tend to be stocked with sweets.

While it is true that no one is forcing us to buy the unhealthy food, it is also true that supermarkets employ a variety of tactics borne of studies in human behavior to catch our attention and to influence our decision making.

Beginning in March, New York City's sugary-beverage ban begins, which will ban any sugary beverage for sale from being larger than 16 oz. Sugar consumption and poor diet in general are established risk factors for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

There is at least objective scientific evidence there. No such thing for product placement.

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