The other day I got a call from a producer who wanted me to
appear on an NPR talk show as a critic of the burgeoning war on obesity. To
illustrate the importance of the precedent set by the anti-smoking crusade,
I suggested to her how the same arguments that were used against the tobacco
companies could be used against fast food chains: They know their products
are unhealthy! They deliberately target children! They hook them before
they're old enough to know better!
"You agree with those arguments?" she asked. I should have
learned from that conversation how risky it is to play devil's advocate when
yesterday's satire is today's news story. Instead, I decided to take it up a
Appearing on the radio show the next morning, I pointed out that
taxing food based on its nutritional content, a policy the two other guests
supported, is an inefficient way of getting Americans to slim down. After
all, such taxes would fall on the thin as well as the fat.
It makes more sense, I suggested, to have all Americans get on a
scale once a year and pay a tax based on how overweight they are. That
approach would encourage fatties to eat less and exercise more, and if they
didn't at least they would compensate the rest of us for the extra medical
costs they incur.
The host asked me if I was serious. His readiness to believe
that I was actually endorsing this authoritarian scheme was all the more
disconcerting because he had just accused me of ignoring the public health
emergency represented by all those overflowing guts. Perhaps he thought I
had finally seen the light.
Judging from the calls, most of the show's listeners had.
Despite a few scattered references to personal responsibility, almost none
of the callers questioned the assumption that the government has to do
something about America's fat surplus.
I began to suspect that the whole thing was a put-on, a mock
radio show aimed at driving me to despair over the triumph of the nanny
state. One caller complained that many foods contain hydrogenated vegetable
oil, which he called a "poison." Clearly, he said, this was a case where
government intervention was needed.
Or maybe, I ventured, this was a case where people who worried
about hydrogenated vegetable oil could
read the ingredients (END
ITAL) and avoid products that contain it. The only reason for the government
to get involved would be to impose this restriction on people who do not
adopt it voluntarily.
The war on obesity, like the war on smoking, is all about
protecting people from their own choices. Yet its Orwellian tacticians argue
that their real aim is liberating people from the conditions that make them
"We know that people can become biologically predisposed to
getting overfed," John Banzhaf, an anti-tobacco veteran turned fat fighter,
recently told the British newspaper The Independent. "It's not an addiction
exactly, but it doesn't leave people with a completely free choice in what
they eat, either."
The Independent added that many Americans can't get healthy food
even if they want it. "Once you head inland from the coasts, away from the
big population centers and college towns," it reported, "the very notion of
unprocessed fresh food" vanishes. "It's a straightforward question of
availability, giving the lie to food industry claims that consumers can
exercise free choice in deciding what to put in their mouths."
This is such an audacious misrepresentation that I don't know
whether to refute it or simply stand in awe. While they may have trouble
finding papayas or radicchio, health-conscious shoppers in even the dinkiest
towns can easily get all the nutrients they need, stay thin and keep their
cholesterol low with a combination of inexpensive staples such as tuna,
chicken, eggs, milk products, bread, pasta, rice, beans, potatoes, and
unexotic fruits and vegetables.
The Independent's bizarre claim that it's impossible to eat a
healthy diet in Middle America reflects a basic premise of the anti-fat
movement: People do not freely choose what they eat; they are manipulated
into bad habits by sneaky corporations. Hence punishing them for eating the
wrong things (through special taxes) or shielding them from messages that
might encourage them to do so (through advertising restrictions) enhances
It once seemed safe to consider such ideas manifestly absurd.
Sadly, that is no longer true.