Commentary

Government Gets Fat Fighting Obesity

This article originally appeared in FoxNews.com on February 26, 2004.
Last December, ABC News’ Peter Jennings hosted a prime-time special entitled “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying.” As you might glean from the title, Jennings intoned ad nauseum that America’s obesity problem lies not with obese Americans, but with food manufacturers and marketers, and with an aloof federal government.

“… There is no sign that government will obligate the food industry to change how they make and market food,” Jennings lamented. He closed the show with a plea: “As we made this program, we often thought about how long it took before government recognized that smoking was a public health issue. And now, it’s obesity. Just think of the money it is costing the country. So how long will it take government to act?”

The answer, unfortunately, is not long. President Bush earmarked $200 million in his budget for obesity-fighting programs. State governments, local governments and school boards across the country have banned vending machines and soda from public school campuses. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has floated the idea of a “fat tax,” as have several prominent names in the now-thriving anti-obesity activism industry. Congress is currently considering a bill that would force restaurants to print nutritional information on menus, a costly measure that would also pave the way for lawsuits.

And speaking of lawsuits, we all know by now what’s going on there, too. The trial lawyers are sharpening their knives for McDonalds, Frito-Lay, and Hershey.

The war against obesity is the logical conclusion of our wars against certain drugs and, later, tobacco. The most personal of daily decisions — what we put into our bodies — is now a matter of “public health.”

This is a dangerous development. Because at the same time politicians and the media are waging war against obesity in the name of public health, government is moving to take Americans’ ownership of their own health and well-being away from them, designating it public property. That is, our health care system is creeping toward socialism, and the just-signed prescription drug benefit is merely the latest (and most ominous) example.

For example, government on all levels has also been gradually restricting health insurers’ ability to charge overweight people higher premiums. This means the guy who works out five times a week and watches his diet is increasingly being asked to pay the same amount of money for health insurance as the guy who loafs on the couch and dines on bacon sandwiches.

At a recent public health conference, nutrition activist Margo Wootan said, “we’ve got to move beyond ‘personal responsibility.’” Activist Skip Spitzer said responsibility was little more than “a cultural construct.” The largest organization of trial lawyers recently advised its members to weed out jurors who show a “personal responsibility bias.”

The title of Jennings’ special, “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying,” is revealing. The aim of Jennings and these lifestyle activists is to shift responsibility for individual health away from individual Americans, and onto the American public as a whole. Once that happens, the case for massive government intervention in what, when, where and how we eat falls on a more receptive audience.

If I’m paying for my neighbor’s high cholesterol, I’m more open to the idea that perhaps government ought to start regulating what he eats. If we’re all paying for one another’s trips to the doctor, we’re all more likely to support government regulation of what McDonalds can and can’t put on its menu, what Safeway or Kroger ought to stock on their shelves, and maybe it’s not such a bad idea to ban Kraft and Nabisco from advertising cookies and corn chips — especially to kids.

Conversely, if I know my health is my own responsibility, and that my medical bills will be coming out of my own savings account, I’m a little more likely to take care of myself.

Personal responsibility goes hand in hand with personal freedom. We can’t regulate away responsibility without regulating away consumer and personal choice. Worse, countries that have attempted the social engineering efforts now advocated by Jennings and his ilk (Sweden, for example) have seen poor returns, leaving the citizens of those countries both overweight and less free.

The only solution is for Americans to demand ownership of and responsibility for their own health and fitness. Health and medical savings accounts are a good first step. Protecting the ability of health insurers to charge lower premiums for good personal habits would help, too. But most importantly, we need to return personal responsibility to the policy-making process. What each individual American puts into his or her body ought to be the sole concern and responsibility of each individual American—not nutrition activists, not state or federal agencies, and certainly not Peter Jennings.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.