TCS Daily

Putting the General in Surgeon General

By John Luik - August 29, 2005 12:00 AM

It's nice to know that just like Big Brother, the Fat Police never sleep. While most of us have been have been trying to catch a few days of vacation during the last bit of summer, the fat police have been hard at work. As expected, their work has been neither thoughtful nor responsible.

The prize for the silliest and also the most dangerous obesity-fighting proposal goes to physician Francine Long whose July 15 Chicago Tribune OpEd has been widely quoted and reprinted. Lang, who is fed up with the "feeble attempts of the government and the food industry to address the epidemic of obesity" believes that the only answer to America's waistline issues is for the Surgeon General to "mandate that effectively immediately all portions of food served in restaurants and fast-food places be cut by one half to two-thirds."

Leaving aside Long's questionable claims about "recent studies" that have shown that obesity is a major health problem comparable to smoking -- the recent CDC study in fact showed precisely the opposite -- and the small quibble that the Surgeon General does not, thankfully, have the power to mandate food portion sizes in America's restaurants, the problem with Long's proposal is that it both inappropriately locates the source and the solution of the obesity problem.

According to Long, the obesity problem is largely environmental. Americans are fat not because of what they choose to put in their mouths, or because they might decide not to exercise, but because of the environmental prompts that lead them to overeat. In other words, weight is not an outcome of personal choices, but stems from the subtle influences of an environment controlled by Big Food -- the food and restaurant industries -- who through tempting advertising, tasty food, outsized portions, and cheap prices together supposedly conspire to "make" us fat. Long, for instance, claims that "most Americans currently eat at least two meals a day outside the home!", and it IS this incessant eating out that is the root of the obesity problem.

But is this really the case? Are fat Americans really the product of eating out for two meals a day? According the National Restaurant Association, Americans consume about 70 billion restaurant meals and snacks annually. In other words, the number of meals is substantially less than 70 billion. That's still a lot of meals -- but no where near Long's crazy claim that most people are eating out for two meals a day. For example, if even 75% of the population, about 187 million people, eat out twice a day for 365 days that's over 125 billion restaurant meals a year, far more than the total of snacks and meals. So clearly people are not eating two meals a day at restaurants as Long claims. Moreover, several recent studies that have looked at some of the influences on children's weight have shown that one of the major risks factors for overweight and obesity was not the types or amounts of food that children ate but the lack of physical activity.

But let's assume, for the minute, that Long is in fact right, that Americans are getting most of their food each and every day in restaurants. This still misses the important question as to who it is that decides where, what and how much to eat at each of those meals. For Long and the food police, those decisions are obviously made by someone else, by some environmental factor like the food or restaurant industry but never by the person doing the eating. In other words, the environmental theory of fat denies that individual choice and individual responsibility have a role in obesity. It's as if the economist's hidden hand is stalking American restaurants and someone other than me is picking up knife, fork and spoon and opening my mouth.

The facts, however, paint quite a different picture. For example, a recent story in the Washington Post (August 18, 2005) reports that restaurants like Ruby Tuesday that have tried reducing portions and putting more healthy foods along with calorie and fat contents on their menu, have backed away because of the lack of consumer interest. According to the Post,

"Like many restaurant chains in the past two years, Ruby Tuesday has discovered that while customers say they want more nutritious choices, they rarely order them."

As Denny Post of Burger King notes

"The gap between what [diners] say and what they do is just huge."

So contrary to Dr. Long, rather than creating America's food taste, the restaurant industry instead simply serves those tastes.

And those tastes, despite the claims of Long and the food police have not changed. As Richard Johnson, Ruby Tuesday's senior vice president told the Post

"The first Ruby Tuesday opened in 1972. In those days, the number one item people ordered when they went out was a hamburger and French fries. Today the number one items people order when they go out are a hamburger, French fries and chicken tenders."

Customers bring their own tastes into the restaurant: they don't pick them up off the menu. This means that rather than looking at eating out and restaurant menus and portions for the source of our added weight we ought instead to be looking in the mirror.

Like the trial lawyers who are furiously at work to prove that food is addictive, Long champions a notion that is wildly at odds with the way in which ordinary people think about themselves, their choices and their actions. However much we might all like on occasion to point our fingers elsewhere, we all know that our waistlines are more the result of personal choice, both about food and about exercise, than environmental coercion. And with that acceptance of personal choice comes also the acceptance of personal responsibility for finding solutions. Stepping off the scale in shock most of us are likely to say "I need to lose some weight" not "The government needs to help me lose weight." Both the decision to act and the responsibility for the consequences begin with me, not with the government. Long's proposal to make the Surgeon General the arbiter of restaurant portions is at bottom an example of what makes the food police so odious, namely their elitist paternalism that finds the solution for every problem not in free AND responsible individuals but in some form of social engineering.

The end result of the type of social engineering that Long proposes will be a thinner citizenry, though sadly not the kind she envisions. It will be citizenry thinner in its capacity for choice, self-government and personal responsibility. And along with it will come a government fatter through its expanded power to shape inappropriately the lives of all of us. Most of us would prefer a society of the fat and the free to Long's country of the lean who have surrendered to the food police and the government the right to decide what they eat, how they look and what it means to be not only healthy but happy.

John Luik is writing a book about health care policy. He lives in Canada.


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