The Thin Man Goes to Washington

Jacob Sullum

1/9/2008 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

In his inaugural New York Times column, William Kristol suggests Mike Huckabee may be the right Republican presidential candidate to beat "a liberal Democrat" who will "want to increase the scope of the nanny state." This is like counting on Godzilla to save us from King Kong.

Losing more than 100 pounds in less than a year is the former Arkansas governor's main claim to fame, and for Huckabee, the personal is political. "Although my weight-loss battle was a very personal one," he wrote in the journal Health Affairs in 2006, "my position as governor allows me to help others to see the importance of making healthy lifestyle changes."

Huckabee created the Healthy Arkansas program, "a comprehensive effort to clearly define specific areas where behavioral changes can lead to healthier citizens." As chairman of the National Governors Association, he led the Healthy America initiative, aimed at creating "a culture of wellness across the nation."

Both efforts relied primarily on information and persuasion, but the rationales Huckabee offered for them suggest sterner measures could be justified. Because of the burden that bad habits such as overeating, inactivity and smoking impose on taxpayer-funded medical care, he said, a state's fiscal health is tied to its residents' physical health. In any case, he said, "states have both the authority and the duty to enact laws and regulations to advance the public's health."

So what happens when people fail to "see the importance of making healthy lifestyle changes"? The Arkansas Clean Indoor Air Act, which Huckabee brags about championing, provides a clue.

Huckabee says the law, which prohibits smoking in virtually all enclosed spaces that are not private residences, is about "workplace safety." Yet, the main health benefit from smoking bans comes from encouraging smokers to quit, not from reducing exposure to secondhand smoke. And lest you think that federalist scruples would prevent Huckabee from pursuing his vision of a smoke-free America as president, he has promised to support a national ban on smoking in "public places."

In his 2005 book "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork," Huckabee implies that he does not favor similarly coercive tactics aimed at getting Americans to eat better and exercise more. "We do not need the government to become the 'grease police,'" he writes, "dictating what size cheeseburgers the law will allow or taxing obese people at a different rate than thin people because of the likelihood of additional health care costs associated with obesity."

But given his broad view of the government's authority to "advance the public's health," it's hard to see how Huckabee can rule out such measures, especially since he portrays the "huge epidemic of obesity" as a crisis that threatens the treasury, the economy and even national security. "We keep talking about the war on terror," he said in an August speech to the Southern Governors' Association. "Who's going to fight it if we don't have enough people who are healthy enough to show up and pick up a backpack?"

Like other obesity alarmists, Huckabee warns that poor eating habits and lack of exercise could make American life spans shorter. A lot shorter: "If we continue with this trend," he told CNN in 2006, "within another generation, you'll see kids dropping dead at their desks at the high school."

To avoid that prospect, CNN reported, Huckabee called for "a culture of health," citing four examples "in which concerted public campaigns, aided by government, led to cultural shifts": littering, seat belt use, smoking and drunk driving. Notably, littering, failing to wear a seat belt and driving while intoxicated are all illegal, while smoking is headed in that direction, thanks to Huckabee and like-minded politicians.

For those of us who worry that a President Huckabee would be inclined to force his culture of health on America, there's one consolation: If he's right, Grease Police recruits will be so fat that we'll be able to outrun them easily.