TCS Daily

From Parody to Reality

By James K. Glassman - May 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Six years ago, after tobacco companies agreed to settle lawsuits filed by the states, the Wall Street Journal published what seemed at the time to be a hilarious parody by Mark Bernstein.

It was titled "A Big Fat Target." The parody claimed that junk food sellers would be next on the list for lawsuits, as well as Wisconsin Cheese Lords for clogging arteries and makers of exciting movies for encouraging a sedentary lifestyle. Bernstein concluded, "It is too hot to exercise. Dieting demands willpower, and why bother if you're just a victim? Come on, America. Get off that couch and sue."

I am indebted to Michael Krauss of George Mason University, who referred to the Bernstein piece in a legal backgrounder for Washington Legal Foundation this year. It was, as Bernstein himself wrote, "a bit preposterous."

Now move to August 2000: the parody newspaper, The Onion, headlined, "Hershey's Ordered to Pay Obese Americans $135 Billion." The company, said The Onion, "knowingly and willfully" marketed to children "rich, fatty candy bars containing chocolate and other ingredients of negligible nutritional value" while "spiking" them with "peanuts, crisped rice and caramel to increase consumer appeal."

Fast forward to 2001. Journalists began calling John Banzhaf, the George Washington University professor who led the anti-smoking legal crusade from its early stages. "Would tobacco-style lawsuits," they wondered, "now be aimed at food processors and restaurants?"

"Well, no," Banzhaf later recalled he said. "There are important differences." For example, food, unlike tobacco or asbestos, is something everyone needs to live.

But look where we are today. The parody has become reality.

Recent evidence: Lawsuits filed last year by several fat children, looking for restitution from fast-food restaurants. At first, a suit in New York was tossed out of court by Judge Robert Sweet, who said, "Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald's." (Or, to put it more clearly: No one is forced to eat the most fattening items on the McDonald's menu, as opposed to the no-cal soft drinks and the salads.) But Sweet then offered some advice on how to revise the suit to make it more palatable.

Banzhaf has utterly changed his mind. He's now leading the charge.

But the lawsuits, as crazy as they are, are simply one manifestation of the hysteria surrounding obesity - not just an American, but a worldwide phenomenon.

This hysteria is easy to dismiss, but it is important. We began covering it at TechCentralStation because it involved several broad themes that are profoundly affecting American life:

  1. The difficulty of translating science into public policy - which has led, very simply, to the distortion of scientific evidence for political ends. That is, the derogation of sound science. We see this all over, especially in environmental policy. When it comes to obesity, there is a great deal that we do not know, including whether fat children become fat adults and how to separate the particular risk factor of obesity from other factors, where the causal relationship between overweight and illness is, and even how to define overweight and obesity. For example, the ideal weight for a six-foot man according to BMI tables is between 150 and 165 pounds. My own BMI is 24.4, which is just 6/10s of a point short of overweight. The key is this statement by Chou, Grossman and Shaffer in their study last fall for the National Bureau of Economic Research: "Although the prevalence of obesity continues to rise, the reasons for this increase remain unknown and speculative."

  2. The distressing trend of blaming others for one's own poor behavior. It appears that, except in a few cases, the main reason that people are fat is that they either eat too much or exercise too little - or some combination. Whose fault is that? In a society in which NOTHING is your own fault, we seek scapegoats. In the case of obesity, the villains are, quite frankly, absurd: restaurants, makers of candy bars, purveyors of soft drinks? Come on. Even more than in the case of smoking, obesity shines a huge spotlight on the importance of personal responsibility.

  3. Unintended consequences. In their NBER study last fall, Chou and colleagues looked at the economic factors behind the rise in obesity. They found, for example, that the success of the anti-smoking campaign seems to have made more people fat. On the subject of exercise, one study found that over the past century, the reduction in jobs requiring physical labor - overall, a good thing - has decreased energy expenditure in the amount of 500 to 600 calories a day, enough to account for the entire weight gain over the period. Computers, TV, music videos have all increased sedentary behavior. "Nothing is as firmly established in the literature as the fact that TV-watching and overweight children go hand in hand," wrote Mary Eberstadt in Policy Review recently. And more efficient agriculture and management have helped push down the price of food. Finally, government social policies on food, including food stamps and the WIC program, encourage over-consumption. As my AEI colleague Doug Besharov points out, these policies seem geared toward feeding the starving, while starvation is emphatically not the big nutritional problem in America today. On restaurants: They have indeed proliferated, but as the Chou study says, "A literal interpretation...implicates fast-food and full-service restaurants as culprits in undesirable weight outcomes. But a very different interpretation emerges if one recognizes that the growth in these restaurants, and especially fast-food restaurants, is to a large extent a response to the increasing scarcity and increasing value of household or non-market time." Similarly, another study found "robust evidence of a positive and significant impact of maternal work on the probability that the child is overweight."

  4. Finally, runaway lawsuits. Studies show that excessive lawsuits are costing the U.S. economy a full 1 percent in growth each year, and that's a conservative estimate. After breast implants, tobacco, asbestos, guns and pharmaceuticals, lawyers are looking for deep pockets. And they have found (as in the case of tobacco) that, by enlisting political help, they can win hopeless suits.

The good news is that, even though the debate has not been properly framed, the issue is an important one that needs to be engaged.

People gain weight when their daily activity fails to burn off the food they consume. So obesity has two causes: too much consumption of food and too little exercise. Both play a role, but it's interesting to note that while the Surgeon General says that 300,000 preventable deaths a year are linked to obesity, the Department of HHS also says that "physical inactivity contributes to 300,000 preventable deaths a year in the United States." Seven out of 10 Americans are not active for at least 30 minutes a day five days a week. For high school students, the figure rises to eight out of 10. Only one in six middle and junior high schools and only 1 in 50 high schools requires daily physical activity for all students. Clearly, both eating and exercise affect weight. But when it comes to health, exercise appears to be far more important.

For example, a study by Wei, et al., in 1999 found that, overweight and obese adults who were fit (in the sense of regularly exercising) were only 10 percent more likely that non-overweight fit adults to be unhealthy. Meanwhile, overweight adults who are not fit were 2.5 times as likely to be unhealthy as non-overweight fit adults and obese adults were 3 times as likely. The biggest predictor of mortality is not fatness but fitness, or unfitness. But with unfitness, it is hard to figure out whom to sue - except perhaps TV networks.

Certainly, a function of public policy is to inform Americans that eating too much, either fatty foods or carbohydrates, can make them unhealthy. But who doesn't know that? Both Maine and New York are considering bills that would require restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus. McDonald's has been posting that information in its restaurants since the early 1970s. Fine, but people know that a Big Mac, a large fries and a large Coke are fattening, just as they know that an ice cream cone is fattening. And McDonald's, unlike most ice-cream parlors, offers choices. The company recently launched a new line of premium salads and has started a Healthy Active Lifestyles program to educate and encourage good nutrition and exercise.

I would argue that obesity is NOT a public health problem in the sense of, say, a communicable disease like SARS or AIDS and, in fact, it distracts resources and discourages personal responsibility.

What to do? Would America and the world be healthier and happier if people were fit instead of fat? Of course. But scaring people, especially children, about what they eat is probably counterproductive. Over 80 percent of 10-year-old girls in the U.S. say they have been on a diet at one time or another. And 40 percent of Japanese schoolgirls think they are fat. Body-image anxieties are increasing because of all the talk of obesity and eating has become seen as a hazard, hedged with moral prescriptions. Food has become something not to be enjoyed but feared. The main reasons that people are eating so much in the U.S. seem to me to be economic and cultural.

For example, a culture of fear is discouraging parents from allowing kids to do what they did to burn off calories: walk or ride bikes to school, jump rope (jumping rope is now banned in British schools), playing in parks away from home. And schools are saddled with so many other social requirements that they don't have time or money to provide children with physical education. That is a shame.

Ultimately, except for a few changes to welfare policy (especially food stamps and the WIC program), I do not think that obesity is a problem that lends itself to a public-policy solution. Some things, after all, are personal. Greg Critser, a liberal and a Democrat, concluded in "Fatland," his best-selling book: "Most of us are fat because we are slothful and gluttonous. Most people don't want to hear that."

One thing is clear: The runaway lawsuits and the political interventions are actually contributing to the problem by encouraging the belief that people are not responsible for their own health.

These remarks were recently delivered to a symposium at the New America Foundation.

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