TCS Daily

State Obesity

By Sylvain Charat - November 8, 2004 12:00 AM

The French parliament, in an effort to fight what it calls the "obesity epidemic", is now taxing food producers and forbidding vending machines in schools.

Wait a minute. An epidemic? Not exactly. Genetic problems can cause obesity, but there is no virus or bacteria, and you do not catch it by shaking hands or sneezing. The only epidemic that exists may lie in bad education - or no education at all - concerning food, or worse, lack of individual responsibility.

Obesity? Actually, the popular understanding confuses obesity with weight problems in general. Yet the two are linked, and we shall consider data concerning both. The figures are striking indeed. In France, the overweight population over 15 years of age increased from 36.7 percent in 1997 to 41.6 percent in 2003. Over the same time, obese persons went from 8.2 percent of the population to 11.3 percent, and if this increase continues, 20 percent of French people will be obese in 2020. This is something of a nightmare for a country which brags about its "cuisine" and "art de vivre".

When it comes to children, France's situation is quite worrying: 3 percent were overweight in 1965, 6 percent in 1980 and 16 percent in 2000. Now, in 2004, it is estimated that 18 percent of children are overweight, of which 3 percent are obese.

French representatives and French senators have passed a law embedded in a sort of protectionism - i.e., protecting the consumer from the product. Let me explain.

Last June, in the Senate building, a beautiful 18th-century chateau bordered by the Jardins du Luxembourg in the heart of Paris, the public health policy bill was debated. Obesity of course was one of the concerns of the legislators. Francis Giraud, 72, a member of the majority UMP party, may have thought he had contributed to fight against obesity when he presented, in the name of the Social Affairs commission to which he belonged, an amendment which is now in the Public Health Law. The amendment requires that advertisements concerning drinks or food containing "added sugar, fat, salt or artificial sweetener" aired on TV or radio must be accompanied by "a specific information of sanitary nature".

Nevertheless, advertisers may choose not to comply with this requirement - how gracious of the state -- but only if they give a "contribution" to the National Institute of Health Prevention and Education. This contribution -- translation: this tax -- is calculated at 1.5 percent of the budget used to air advertisements. With those revenues, the Institute will then finance operations for nutritional information and education.

But that is not all. There is a second interesting measure, which provides that food and drinks vending machines are "forbidden in school buildings as of September 1st, 2005". If the 1.5 percent tax is a form of protectionism, then this prohibition on vending machines is simple restriction: consumers are deprived of a product for the supposed sake of their own health, as if they were too stupid to realize they will be sick if they eat too much. But these measures will do nothing in the fight against obesity.

In both pieces of legislation, obesity is fought by restrictions on the producer. In other words, producers are held responsible for the consumer's bad decisions and are penalized if ever their products are used excessively.

Once again, the state's intervention ignores individual responsibility. Make no mistake: no companies force people to eat their food or drinks. And if a company tries to create a need for a product, each of us is free to say yes or no. Considering food companies as guilty is destroying individual responsibility and making people believe they are not responsible for their own health and their own actions.

State intervention confuses cause and consequence. Obesity is not caused by what you eat, but by how you eat. It is not the product in itself which causes obesity, but its excessive consumption. Saying this, the government should show more concern about the consumers than the producers.

Instead, the "obesity epidemic" is only the latest opportunity for the state to intervene in daily lives and promote collectivist irresponsibility instead of individual responsibility. Call it "state obesity".

Sylvain Charat is director of policy studies in the French think-tank Eurolibnetwork.


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