Jacob Sullum

The fattest speaker at a recent conference on obesity was the anti-fat campaigner Kelly Brownell, who never tires of comparing Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel. If pointing to Brownell's gut or his extra chin seems mean, consider how you would feel about a chain-smoking anti-tobacco activist or a slots-playing anti-gambling crusader.

Brownell is not the only portly leader of the fight against obesity. John Banzhaf, the George Washington University law professor who is a conspicuous advocate of suing fast food companies, also could stand to lose more than a few pounds.

But according to Brownell, a psychologist who heads Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, their girth is not their fault. The problem is the "toxic food environment": Food is too cheap, too tasty, too readily available, and too heavily promoted. In such an environment, Brownell argues, people naturally expand, just like laboratory rats fed a cafeteria-style diet.

"It's very hard to blame (rising obesity) on personal irresponsibility," he asserted at the obesity conference, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. "Instead of taking an individual point of view . . . we need to think of why the nation is overweight."

But a nation does not get fat; individuals do, one sticky bun at a time. The nation cannot eat less and exercise more; only people can, and they will do so only if they're persuaded that the costs in terms of foregone pleasure and extra effort are worth it.

A collectivist mentality leads to collectivist solutions. "We have a real crisis," Brownell declared. "There's a public that needs to be protected, and some bold and decisive action is going to be necessary." Given such rhetoric, his proposals are remarkably lame: more bike paths, no soda in schools, special taxes on "junk" foods, restrictions on food advertising.

Meanwhile, Brownell rejects measures that would make a real difference. When I suggested (tongue in cheek, I hasten to add) that the government tax people for each pound over their ideal weight, he objected.

Brownell's complaint was not that such a system would be tyrannical because how much you weigh is your business, not the government's. Plainly, he doesn't believe that. Rather, he worried that a weight tax puts too much emphasis on individual responsibility rather than the environment.

So the prices people pay for food are part of the environment that encourages obesity, but the price they pay for being fat is not? It seems Brownell simply does not have the courage of his convictions.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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