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Fat and Fatter: So What?

Personal health choices and the federal government.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 19, 2001

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Fat and Fatter: So What?_James Leroy Wilson-Personal health choices and the federal government. The President has told us that our part in fighting terrorism is to go about our normal routine. Mark Steyn humorously applied this to conservatives (including himself): If we don't continue our obsession with Bill Clinton, the terrorists have already won! The same goes for the government: if it doesn't waste our time and money, then the terrorists have already won! If I don't use my column to bash the government, the terrorists have already won!

One object of our government's attention is a "societal problem" most countries would love to have: due to the cheapness of delicious food and wasteful spending habits, Americans are too fat and getting fatter. This might not be obvious, as (fortunately) nice-looking bodies dominate tv and the movies. But some two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese, according to Surgeon General David Satcher's December 13 report. This makes it a leading cause of heart disease (duh!), diabetes, and other illnesses. Fat-related illnesses rank second to tobacco-related illnesses as the leading cause of death in the United States.

Apparently, this epidemic is directly attributable to failures in personal freedom, capitalism, and local government. Already I've read one op-ed piece clamoring for a war on fast food just as we have one on Big Tobacco. The problem is that fatty and tasty foods are cheaper than fruits and vegetables. Restaurants serve "super-sized" portions. Also - and I agree this is disgraceful - public schools provide spots for soft drink and snack vending machines and no longer have recess. (One more reason to pull your kids out of the public schools.) The Surgeon General calls for the usual mix of subsidies (lowering the price of healthy foods) and local action (more public playgrounds, walking paths, etc.) that encourage healthier lifestyles.

The Surgeon General's only other notable "contribution" to society had been to shield the tobacco industry from tort lawyers for three decades, through his warnings of health hazards attached on all tobacco advertising and products. The logic behind the Surgeon General's Office, which is separate from both the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, is, apparently, to raise alarms that unhealthy personal behavior, by itself, can become a social "problem" requiring a federal "solution."

Americans willfully spend 40% of their food budget on restaurants and fast food, where food is already vastly more expensive than it is at the grocery, yet the government thinks subsidizing the price of fruits and vegetables will change economic behavior. Did Dr. Satcher not realize that when Coke goes on sale, so does Diet Coke? And that skim milk is already cheaper than fattier kinds?

If Americans wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables, their comparative price relative to other supermarket goods isn't stopping us. We could buy all the healthy food we need, if we didn't spend so much at restaurants where prices for a meal are anywhere between 3 and 300 times more expensive than preparing a balanced dinner at home.

But one of the great things about being an American is enjoying small pleasures often. They don't make economic sense - diet soda is cheaper than beer, gum than cigarettes. But enjoyment and economic sense are not supposed to be agreeable. Life is more than frugality. And although frugality is superior to gluttony and addiction, I do not see the provision in the Constitution that authorizes the federal government to tell the difference.

Whether or not the Surgeon General came out with a report on the consequences of being overweight, somebody, some day, would have. Actually they have already; that being fat is unhealthy is not news to anyone. But just as abstinence is always an option to the alcoholic, and quitting likewise to the smoker, people who want to eat healthier, can. People who want to exercise, can. Even those who are, by American standards, in poverty. The recommendations and medical information have always been right there, right in our face, for three decades at least.

Personal health problems and personal irresponsibility do not make a national health crisis. The rise in American fatness corresponds with the rise of unprecedented American economic, military, and cultural power. This hardly implies that overweightness is really a national problem. People are going to die sometime, of something. The government doesn't need to spend its time telling us that we eat too much yet absolve us from the responsibility of the fact. We can eat less and exercise. We don't need self-evidently ineffective public spending to solve a "problem" we can address ourselves.

By the way, have a guilt-free and merry Christmas.

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