TCS Daily

Welcome to the Obesity Summit

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

Editor's note: Frequent TCS contributor and Cato Institute Policy Analyst Radley Balko is covering this week's TIME/ABC News Obesity Summit in Colonial Williamsburg. He will provide TCS readers updates throughout the conference. Balko covers nanny culture issues for Cato. He wrote about the conference on May 17 for Tech Central, a condensed version of which appeared in the June 7 issue of TIME. Balko will also moderate a panel discussion on the marketing and advertising of food to children on June 7 at the Cato Institute.

You know, it is a bit odd that the planners of the TIME/ABC News/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Obesity Summit would choose as its location the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Williamsburg served as headquarters for General Washington as he prepared for the decisive American Revolution victory in Yorktown. Washington also served in Williamsburg as a Virginia legislator, and was sent by Virginia to the First Continental Congress. It was in Williamsburg that Thomas Jefferson drafted the View of the Rights of British America, a radical document decrying the oppressive nature of the British Crown, and which won Jefferson enough favor with his peers to be assigned the task of writing the Declaration of Independence. Anti-Stamp Act provocateur and utterer of the famous words, "give me liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry stalked the streets of Williamsburg, too.

So here we gather. In the heart of a village rich with the history of American liberty, a hamlet whose tradition nearly defines rugged American individualism, and whose heroes embody the concept of personal responsibility, a gaggle of nutrition activists, politicians, academics, and media figures prepare for a three-day event, designed to call national attention to what's billed as the obesity "epidemic," and call for immediate, extensive government action to relieve us of its scourge -- including tax initiatives, restrictions on the restaurant and manufacturing industries, and removing food and drink options from "vulnerable populations," meaning children, of course.

The event's a to-do. Satellite trucks align the drive outside the Williamsburg lodge, and as you enter, you see a smattering of blown-up TIME Magazine display covers that have addressed obesity, diet and nutrition over the years. In the lobby, long white tables draped with white skirts offer bottled water and fruit. The press room's already dotted with laptops opened to in-progress Word documents, and the invited list includes reps from the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, People, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and a solid 50 or so other press and media organizations.

In the press room, I see that secondary sponsors for the event include New Balance, and Aetna (odd, considering that the health insurance ranks second only to Big Food in evil quotient), and the Milk Producers (even odder), and see copies of a few news releases already out for public consumption. One touts a new study tying obesity to home-work commute times. Another boasts a disturbing new program in the state of Arkansas which requires public schools in that state to monitor the weight and Body Mass Index of all 450,000 public school children in that state. Yet another states that obesity is a worldwide problem, and that it disproportionately affects the poor (though obviously not the poorest - one in five people still lives on less than a dollar a day). Still another measures public support for measures aimed to curb childhood obesity, including "raising the price of junk food sold in schools," "restricting marketing of unhealthy foods to kids, and requiring more time for physical education."

Wednesday night's big event was a keynote address by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. A report on the Secretary's speech and other first night activities coming up next...


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