Carl Horowitz

What if restaurants throughout this country were too scared of a lawsuit to sell foods deemed fattening? It's not a far-fetched possibility, at least if a misguided gaggle of lawyers, legislators and researchers get their way.

Chicago is the latest focal point in a movement to create a slimmer America. Alderman Edward Burke this June proposed a citywide ban on the use of cooking with oils containing artificial trans fatty acids in restaurants that do at least $20 million a year worth of business. Establishments not in compliance would face fines ranging from $200 to $1,000 per day.

"We have to be very careful when we start telling everybody how to live their lives," cautioned Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor perhaps is making up for keeping a low profile in the face of recent bans enacted by the Board of Aldermen on smoking in restaurants and bars and on the selling of foie gras (a liver delicacy).

Elsewhere, dozens of states either have introduced or passed legislation aimed at curbing obesity. Measures include restricting advertising to children; requiring schools to provide parents with information about student body mass index; requiring schools to provide diabetes screening; mandating insurance coverage for obesity prevention and treatment; and establishing nutrition education programs. A University of Baltimore-affiliated think tank, the Schaefer Center for Public Policy, has created an annual "Obesity Report Card" to keep the heat on states to do more.

Granted, there never will be a shortage of people who, lacking in impulse control, prefer to gorge themselves without regard to health consequences. But to use that as a pretext to limit the range of pleasures available to all of us has an unpleasant ring of familiarity. Prohibition operated on this very premise: Let us combat the temptation to take an activity to excess by banning the activity outright.

Don't bother telling our latter-day Prohibitionists about the necessity of self-control. Whether the object of their wrath is food or alcohol, such talk merely serves as a cover for the irresponsible pursuit of profit.

For a good decade or more, Kelly Brownell, a paunchy Yale psychologist and top adviser to the deceptively effective Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, has called for punitive taxes on unhealthy food. "I recommend we develop a militant attitude about the toxic food environment, like we have about tobacco," he has written in CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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