Is Obesity the Responsibility of the Body
One insists that government must use its legislative power to slim down an increasingly obese nation. In this view, obesity, like smoking, has become a public health crisis and demands a public health solution. In state legislatures, anti-obesity advocates are pushing bills that would add sin taxes for sodas, require calorie counts on restaurant menus and ban "foods of minimum nutritional value" in schools (that means you, Sno-Kone).
The other side argues that government cannot legislate eating less or exercising more. How much people weigh, this side argues, is a product of personal choice and responsibility, and cannot be dictated by what it calls the Twinkie police. This side opposes calorie counts on restaurant menus. It promotes legislation in statehouses and Congress with names like "The Commonsense Consumption Act" and "The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Bill," which would prohibit lawsuits against restaurants or food companies for causing obesity.
In short, it is "let them eat cake" versus "let them eat cake, but not until they are informed that it contains 760 calories and 44 grams of fat per slice." The dividing line is, how much should and can government do?
"Legislators tend to do the things that are easy, and let's face it, you can't pass a law that says everybody will show up for jumping jacks," said Richard B. Berman, the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a restaurant and food industry group in Washington. "So they pass laws that restrict choices and make them more expensive. I don't think listing six grams of fat versus eight grams of fat is the answer."
Yet proposals for government intervention are rising fast. This year, 150 bills have been introduced in state legislatures, more than double the number the previous year and 10 in the last six weeks alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Arkansas board of education this year mandated that schools send home a weight report card. Local school districts in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Oregon and California already require the same.
All these efforts, anti-obesity activists argue, simply counter years of government policy that encouraged obesity. Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale University Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, points to heavy subsidies for sugar and meat producers. School lunch programs and the federal nutrition program that provides food packages for seven million low-income women, infants and children tilt heavily toward sugary juices, dairy and other high-fat foods.
Sean Faircloth, a Democratic state representative in Maine, points to government budgets that cut recess and physical education classes. He has proposed calorie counts and banning sodas in schools as part of what many consider the nation's most comprehensive anti-obesity package.
"Where do you find an epidemic this large and significant and public policy makers doing nothing about it?" Mr. Faircloth asked. "I'm not saying, 'Let's lecture people.' I'm saying, 'Let's give them more information.' If you want to have the heart-attack-on-the-plate at every meal, that's fine. But we should have the information."
Yet, as Mr. Berman at the Center for Consumer Freedom points out, the public girth has grown even as information on food labels has increased over the last two decades. And requiring calorie counts on restaurant menus, he argues, only invites litigation.
"One of these activist groups goes in, orders five different chef salads and sues because there's a 20 percent difference in calories between them," he said. "It's a constant barrage of nuisance lawsuits."
Mr. Berman and people on his side are reacting mostly to one particular lawsuit, filed against McDonald's last year by two obese teenagers in New York. The lawsuit was thrown out, but they fear more claims by advocacy groups that liken Big Food to Big Tobacco, an industry that tempts children and promotes unhealthful products.
Others argue food is not tobacco. "Cigarettes are one of those products that, when used as directed, will kill you," said John A. Fritchey, a Democratic state representative in Illinois. "I don't believe there is much food out there that, when eaten responsibly, is going to kill you."
So in Illinois, home of McDonald's, Mr. Fritchey announced last month that he would file legislation to ban obesity lawsuits against restaurants. There is a similar proposal already in Wisconsin, and Louisiana has had a law limiting food companies' liability since early June.
The public, meanwhile, seems split on the question. According to a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health in May, half of those surveyed feel that obesity is a "private matter," while half said it is a "public health issue that society needs to help solve."
Seventy-seven percent said the government should promote exercise and eating right. Sixty-two percent supported requiring calorie and other nutritional information on menus, and 41 percent a special junk food tax.
That suggests that between the two sides is a public hungry for balance: the government can help, but no one can force you to turn down that slice of chocolate cake.