Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Big Government Says No Whoppers For You!

To all those who celebrated outrageously with the government's vicious takedowns on the tobacco industry in the form of lawsuits and the latest round of smoking bans, here's something else you can now hitch your crusader aims to. Practically everyone cried that there would be no sliding scale in the war on tobacco, that after they got done demonizing smokers and exiling them from every public place they could think of, that would be it. Even when an outdoor smoking ban took effect, many shrugged it off or celebrated it. Well, the sliding scale is sliding again, and this time it's come to food. As Saletan reports:

So, we've found a new enemy: obesity. Two years ago, the government discovered that the targets of previous crusades—booze, sex, guns, and cigarettes—were killing a smaller percentage of Americans than they used to. The one thing you're not allowed to do in a culture war is win it, so we searched the mortality data for the next big menace. The answer was as plain as the other chin on your face. Obesity, federal officials told us, would soon surpass tobacco as the chief cause of preventable death. They compared it to the Black Death and the Asian tsunami. They sent a team of "disease detectives" to West Virginia to investigate an obesity outbreak. Last month, the surgeon general called obesity "the terror within" and said it would "dwarf 9-11."

How do we fight it? Everyone agrees on exercising and eating responsibly. The debate is over what the government should do. Health advocates want to restrict junk-food sales, regulate advertising, require more explicit labels, and ban trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated oils), which are often put into crackers, cookies, and other products to prolong shelf life. They marshal the kind of evidence that won the war on smoking: correlations between soda, junk food, obesity, disease, and death. Lawyers who made their fortunes suing tobacco companies are preparing suits against soda companies. Two months ago, when President Bush gave a health-care speech at the headquarters of Wendy's, activists compared the hamburger chain to Philip Morris. They see themselves as waging the same brave struggle, this time against "the food industry."

Many would laugh and poo-poo at such a notion, but Saletan gives numerous examples about how the fight is already underway. He also articulates what the strategy will likely be: "First, we should protect kids. Second, fat people are burdening the rest of us. Third, junk food isn't really food." Sound familiar to anyone? While I have always been in favor of heavily regulating tobacco, it worries me as the anti-smoking legislation continues to pile up. As Big Government starts to intervene in our lives to fix our lifestyle choices and protect us, where will it stop? I'm probably not the only person who scared shitless by John Kerry's call for a "Department of Wellness." I'm no libertarian. For one I think government should force the food industry and any industry to disclose honest facts about the wares they are selling to people. Informational regulation is effective (nutritional labels being the obvious one) and helps consumers make informed choices and hold those who smuggle undesirable elements into food accountable at the marketplace. But this? This is too far.

Banning certain types of food, creating special classes, suing people over advertising or for making them fat? The legal system should not be involved in these questions and issues and neither should the government. But if this latest round of lefty activists has their way those issues will be the least of our worries as they open up a thousand new assaults on what Americans are allowed to eat. If anyone thinks this isn't possible, just imagine what someone 20 years ago might have thought of the anti-tobacco lobby's chances of success.