TCS Daily

'As Threatening to Us As the Terrorist Threat'?

By Radley Balko - June 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: Check out Radley Balko's first installment here.

If you check out the website for the Obesity Summit, you'll notice on the homepage the quote the summit's organizers have chosen to set the tone for three day event. It's from U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona:

"As we look to the future and where childhood obesity will be in 20 years... it is every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today. It is the threat from within."

The U.S. government's spokesperson on medical issues says obesity is every bit as threatening as terrorism. Given that the war on terror has spawned the largest federal bureaucracy in the history of the country, questionable trespasses on our civil liberties, and is costing U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, that's an awfully scary thing for a high-ranking government official to say. And that conference organizers chose to place Carmona's quote front and center ought to give some sort of indication of the starting point from which this debate's about to kick off.

First up to the podium Wednesday night was TIME Magazine president Eileen Naughton, who expounded on the numerous important, intelligent people from all walks of the diet, nutrition, and medical fields that were in attendance, and who then complemented all of us conference attendees for our "shared sense of urgency." She implored us not to "turn our backs" on our children. She thanked ABC News, New Balance, Aetna, and the Milk Producers, then lauded praise on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation embarking on its crusade to "eradicate childhood obesity by 2015."

TIME's science editor Phillip Elmer-DeWitt also took the stage. DeWitt showed the results of a TIME poll on American attitudes toward obesity.

He even gave me a plug. "Our friends at the Cato Institute who emphasize personal responsibility will be happy to know," he said, "that almost 90% of Americans put the blame for obesity on individuals who are obese."

Unfortunately, a healthy majority of poll respondents also blame fast food companies, restaurants, marketers and advertisers, and food manufacturers. Fewer than half also blamed the government. Even more disturbing, 74% of respondents favored government-mandated warning labels on high-fat, high-sugar foods. 61% believe restaurants should be forced to disclose calorie and fat content of every menu item. 56% favor a ban on advertising high-fat or high-sugar foods to kids. 41% favor a tax on fatty or sugary foods, and more than one in five actually favor legal limits on restaurant portion sizes.

That in mind, the night's keynote speaker was Tommy Thompson, currently President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Thompson is one deft politician.

In TIME's news release touting Sec. Thompson as keynote speaker, Sec. Thompson supplied the get-tough quote "America is just too darned fat." His speech also churned out a copious number of meaty soundbites. From my notes...

"We're on the verge of the tipping point when it comes to obesity..."

"There are a billion overweight people in the world, and we have to do something about it."

(Scribbled in my notes "...we're responsible for all the overweight people in the world?)

"Chunky is good, slim is better."

"We're going to have to go out and preach the good news of good health."

"Preventable disease causes 7 in 10 deaths every year."

Thompson boasted about the millions the Bush administration has devoted to various anti-obesity campaigns. He also showed four television commercials HHS will begin airing across the country.

The ads were amusing. In one, we see a dog vigorously gnawing a fleshy mound it's found in a park. The dog's owner investigates, and discovers the mound is a naked derriere. "Looks like someone lost his butt," the owner says. "Probably from taking walks in the park." The other three ads were similar, as double chins, love handles and bellies turn up on the beach, in the produce aisle of the grocery store, and on a city sidewalk.

The adds were cute and creative (though the dog chewing on a discarded human ass was a bit disconcerting), but they're awfully obvious, and I can't see them being all that effective. You have to wonder if spending several million dollars on message like "take more walks," "take the stairs instead of the escalator," and "snack on fruits and vegetables" is really the best use of HHS resources. And as Thompson conceded, because they're public service ads, they're likely to run at times when no one will see them.

Thompson also announced that HHS is undertaking a separate ad campaign aimed at kids, called Verb. The commercials will hit children between the ages 9 and 13, and will encourage them to "pick a verb, then go out and do it." Thompson said such verbs might include "run," "bike," "throw," or "play." Regrettably, Thompson also included "shoot," by which I'm guessing he meant basketball, but that carries some rather unfortunate post-Columbine connotations. A few snickers flitted about the auditorium.

It was at this point, however, that Thompson pulled a fast one on the conference attendees. Here's what he did:

He pointed out that he himself has lost 15 pounds, and begins and ends each day with 60 push-ups. He carries a pedometer, and tries to increase the number of steps he takes each day. He said that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also carries a pedometer, and engages his wife in a steps-per-day competition. Thompson has set up a diet and steps competition within the walls of HHS.

Thompson said we should first fight the obesity battle with our kids, then our families, then our friends, then our communities. He stressed peer pressure, and asked attendees, on an individual level, to "do your own part."

These aren't top-down initiatives. They're affirmations of personal responsibility. And Thompson slyly disguised them in language nutrition activists love.

He then moved to corporate America. Again, he insisted that corporate America do its part to fight obesity, but did so in a way that acknowledged we're already moving that way, and we're doing it without government coercion.

Pepsi, Thompson noted, has pledged to make over 60% of its food products "nutritious" (though I'm not sure what that means -- given that a serving of most fruit juices actually has more calories than an equal serving of soda). Thompson then pointed to the ever-growing list of restaurants and food products that tailor to low-fat, Atkins, and South Beach diets. He noted that McDonalds now hands out pedometers with its "adult happy meals," and that the Ruby Tuesdays chain now voluntarily lists nutritional content on its menus. Thompson then urged consumers who want such changes to patronize and encourage the companies and products implementing them.

Again, Thompson's encouraging not government intervention, but proactive corporate reforms and consumer activism. Again, a sly nod to personal responsibility.

Thompson's questioners tried to pin him down a bit. One state legislator from Indiana decried Coke and Pepsi efforts to keep vending machines in high schools ("I wasn't aware of that"). Another asked if Thompson would ban advertisements for fad diets ("No. It's a free speech issue.") Another asked if he'd devote more money to build walkways and bicycle paths ("That's the purview of Congress and the Transportation Secretary").

I got a chance to interview Thompson after his speech, but more on that in the next installment.

The final speaker of note was Risa Lavizzo-Mouro, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the chief sponsor of the event, and a rather puritanical organization aggressively moving to curb the fun stuff in life -- eating, drinking, and smoking. Lavizzo-Mouro spokes passionately and urgently, frequently invoking the familiar "for our children" refrain. Curiously, she conceded that the science on obesity isn't yet complete, but insisted that we must act "ahead of the science," and "while we're learning" because we can't wait for the science to tell us the extent of the problem, yet another rather unique application of the precautionary principle to justify state intervention.

Wednesday Dinner

What do you serve 600 people attending an obesity conference? For dinner we had:

Blonde Summer Garden Gazpacho (182.7 calories, 16.4g fat, 3.5g protein, 7g carbohydrates, 114mg sodium).

Grilled Mustard-Glazed Lean Generation Pork Tenderloin With Grilled Prawns and Celery Root Puree (325.4 calories, 8.2g fat, 50.9g protein, 8.4g carbohydrates, 218mg cholesterol, 442mg sodium).

Summer Passion Mascarpone Fruit Fool (268.3 calories, 17.1g fat, 1.8g protein, 29.3g carbohydrate, 58mg cholesterol, 20mg sodium).

Our dinner speaker was pro footballer Hall of Famer and Chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness Lynn Swann. Swann's speech also left lots of attendees deflated, as he told two stories of acquaintances he'd known who personally lost and kept off significant amounts of weight -- neither with the aid government regulations, restrictions, or encouragement. One of the two was Swann's lawyer. Of course, that triggered an audience question about "the millions of overweight children who can't afford trainers and don't have access to Nike training facilities."

The most amusing part of Swann's speech was his advice about not eating late at night, which he delivered at just about the time my desert arrived -- 9:05pm by my watch.

More interesting, however, was the conversation at my table. Across from me sat Mark Fenton, a former member of the United States national racewalking team, a self-described "national expert" on "pedestrian advocacy," and host of the new PBS series America's Walking. He's also the questioner who pestered Tommy Thompson for more bike path and walkway funding.

Fenton was boasting to a local director of a Robert Wood Johnson anti-obesity measure in San Diego and obesity researcher and activist Barry Popkin how he was a member of the planning board of a small town in Massachusetts. I thought Fenton's boasts were amusing enough that I asked him to speak with me after dinner on record.

Seems that residents in Fenton's hometown were upset that a Dunkin' Donuts had opened, and some worried that town would soon be polluted by any further proliferation of fast food franchises. So Fenton took action. He proposed a ban on the establishment of any new fast food franchises in the town. The ban passed 140-90, but unfortunately failed to garner the necessary 2/3 majority it would need to become law. Fenton told me he plans to introduce a new measure addressing what he sees as the real problem -- drive-thru service lanes. In addition to fostering the kind of convenience which gives rise to obesity, Fenton said the lanes are, in his words, "pedestrian killers."

Coming next: A bit of interesting news concerning obesity and health insurance -- good news if you are, as I've been described a couple of times at this summit, "one of those personal responsibility people."


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