TCS Daily

Battle of the Bulge

By Duane D. Freese - January 2, 2003 12:00 AM

On the heels of their anti-smoking success, trial lawyers and health advocates are locking and loading again, this time taking aim at fast food restaurants for the "obesity epidemic."

Surgeon General David Satcher made the declaration that obesity was reaching "epidemic proportions" in a report in 2001. The report found that obesity levels - measured as 30 pounds above the appropriate weight/height body mass index - have exploded in the last decade, rising nationwide from 12 percent of the population in 1991 to 19.8 percent in 2000. In addition, more than half of all adults are considered overweight by those standards.

So, what if more people are fat? What's the big deal in that? Well, Satcher says heart and other health conditions brought about by obesity are costing the country $117 billion in additional health costs a year. Thus, he has called for federal, state and local action to promote recognition of obesity as a health problem, to establish new programs to treat obesity and to promote encourage people to exercise more and eat healthier.

For their part, trial lawyers and public health advocates have latched onto that crusade to attack fast food restaurants - singling out McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and the like - for being responsible for the epidemic. Already, lawsuits have been filed on behalf of some obese adults and children who claim that their favorite eating establishments failed to inform them of the amount of fat and calories in French fries and burgers and fried chicken and to provide them more nutritious options. Horrors! These places actually made their lives worse by offering them larger portions for less money. Such bargains should be illegal, they intimate.

It would be nice to laugh off this nannyism. Food, after all, while being a necessity for life is (except for chocolate, of course) non-addictive. You don't go into withdrawal for lack of a Big Mac. McDonald's slogan was: "You deserve a break today," not "Make us your steady diet." No one has manipulated the fat globules in chicken tenders to hook you so you must eat them again, and again, and again.

If fast food establishments were at the bottom of this epidemic, then why do figures from the World Health Organization show a similarly high level of obesity in the Middle East and Eastern Europe - developing countries - as in the United States?

Moreover, the blame-fast-food explanation doesn't comport with how some people eating fast food could actually lose tens, dozens, even scores of pounds.

So, the plaintiffs' chances for winning these cases look mighty slim. Nonetheless, the effort represents a further attempt to erode personal choice and sound science as cornerstones of public policy and replace them with collectivist controls.

The trial lawyers never expected to win the early tobacco suits, but they used them as part of a decade long campaign to make smoking appear an absolute evil. And as anti-smoking and now anti-fat advocate John Banzhaf says, if they can get just one in 10 juries to go along, they will have laid the foundation for a whole array of costly class-action suits. If they can popularize it as a cause, they will set the stage for new taxes on fast food as were applied to cigarettes to feed obesity treatment and health education programs.

The health zealots say this will take a big bite out of obesity. That's baloney. The pound of flesh these folks are seeking isn't from the tummies of overweight people, it's from the wallets of consumers and the hides of corporations, and it will march down a food chain of blame from fast food places to automobiles to television shows and the Internet before it is done.

Think that's crazy? One of the first papers setting a public health agenda on obesity, "Halting the Obesity Epidemic" in the January/February 2000 Public Health Reports in 2000, calls for just that. Written by Marion Nestle of New York University's nutrition department and Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the paper calls for a series of steps to advance the anti-obesity cause.

Among the "hypothetical taxes" they suggest: a 2 or 3 cent tax per 12 ounce soft drink, a 5 percent tax on new television sets and video equipment, and a $65 tax on each new motor vehicle, "or an extra penny tax per gallon of gasoline."

Why? Well, the authors blame the soft drinks, television watching and use of automobiles for contributing to obesity. They estimate that the $1 billion per year collected in such taxes could then be used to tell people how to eat right, and treat those that don't.

By the same reasoning, government should support taxing Internet use to encourage people to stop surfing the information superhighway.

Of course, we've heard this talk about how "sin taxes" are good for us. One needs merely look up the food chain a step to recall how trial lawyers and health care advocates claimed that charging the tobacco companies billions - money collected by them with higher prices from their customers - would provide the greatest advance in health care ever.

One irony of the war on tobacco is that evidence suggests that the anti-smoking campaign may even be connected to weight gain. The rise in obesity in the United States coincides with a plummeting in tobacco use, as per capita cigarette consumption has plunged 60 percent since 1985. And what is true here has also happened abroad.

The explanation is pretty straightforward. It's physiological. Smoking increases metabolism levels, which means people burn more calories when they smoke. When people give up smoking, though, they often don't increase their exercise level to raise metabolism or cut back on the amount they are eating. Thus, they store the extra calories as fat, and over time some have likely become obese.

Shouldn't Banzhaf and his fellow tobacco crusaders have foreseen that outcome? Shouldn't they have warned people to reduce their calorie intake when they gave up smoking? If you want to play the blame game, shouldn't they be held liable for leading people to exchange one unhealthy lifestyle for an even, according to the nonprofit RAND institution on health, unhealthier one? Maybe it's time to lower taxes on cigarettes and have the lawyers give back some of their Big Tobacco earnings?

Personally, I would not place the blame for obesity on a cessation of smoking. Any more than I would tie it to fast food addiction. But that's because I think people who gain weight are responsible for their own eating habits, even after giving up smoking. Gaining weight is not something you can hide from yourself. You know when you've gained weight. And if you are interested in losing weight, there is plenty of information out there on how to lose it if you want. But it mostly comes down to this: reduce your calorie intake and increase your calorie output. In short, cut back your food portions, while still meeting your minimum daily requirements, and exercise more, and you'll lose weight over time. If you are seriously obese, do it under a doctor's supervision.

Such personal responsibility and self-restraint, though, won't satisfy the trial lawyers or so-called consumer health care advocates because there is no money in that for them. They want to charge even Americans who are not overweight extra when they get a soft drink or a burger, drive their car or watch television. We're all in this together.

It's that appetite to socialize the blame that threatens to gobble up our liberties. It happened with smoking - but that supposedly was because tobacco companies could adjust nicotine levels that made cigarettes addictive. If now, though, people can't take responsibility for what and how much they eat in a land of plenty, then what freedom are they really capable of exercising? Not much.

Thus, this Battle of Bulge, like the earlier one, is a fight over liberty, or, as the French might say, "Liberté, égalité, bon appétit!"

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