The Federal Government Takes on "Big Food"
Michigan, there is too much of you.
So says the federal government. It claims we’re way overweight. The feds have found a new crisis. It is America’s “obesity epidemic.” Something must be done. Naturally government must do it. Major campaigns are taking shape to “solve” the problem.
Unfortunately the rationale for action is more troubling than the excess of poundage the government perceives among the citizens.
It perceives far too much in Michigan, which it has identified as a chief culprit in the new calamity. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled statistics on the prevalence of obese individuals state by state. Michigan ranks No. 10. However, eight of the states ahead of us are in the South. When those and West Virginia are excepted, Michigan soars to No. 1. So we will become a prime target of the regulators.
They promise to be compassionate. In “The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity,” issued by the federal government last December, we find the statement that “the Nation must take an informed, sensitive approach to communicate with and educate the American people about health issues related to overweight and obesity.”
But how sensitive is government itself? Its bluntly insensitive message is, “We believe certain citizens should change their behavior.” Government has a legitimate function in controlling behaviors that infringe on other people’s rights, but whose rights are abridged by a person’s excessive weight? The overweight, by being singled out for “help,” are thrust into the status of second-class citizens.
But, argues the government, we are confronting such a very grave matter here, a “public-health issue” that the Surgeon General said is “among the most burdensome faced by the Nation.” Obesity, however, is not contagious or infectious; a person does not catch obesity from somebody else. Disease consequences related to obesity are an individual-health issue, not a public-health issue.
Not so, counters the government, invoking a collectivist vision—every one of us is affected. “The Nation must take action,” intoned the Surgeon General. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson stated in a press release that overweight and obesity have become “a growing health problem for our nation.”
You don’t believe it? Well, look at how much the problem affects the nation—all of us—economically. According to the press release, “The total direct and indirect costs attributed to overweight and obesity amounted to $117 billion in the year 2000.”
That calculation is an application of the same type of junk economics that undergirded governmental attacks on tobacco companies alleging that smoking-related illnesses “cost” the government billions of dollars. The image evoked is that governmental expenditures for these illnesses vaporized—vanished into a black hole. In reality, this money became income for those to whom it was paid—health-care institutions and personnel. Disbursements were a cost on one side but on the other side constituted revenue to the recipients. They gained billions of dollars.
Similarly when an obese citizen gets sick, a cost is incurred, but caregivers get paid an amount equal to that cost. Thus the “$117 billion” becomes a figment of the bureaucratic imagination. Caregivers may argue their payments are too low, but that is a separate issue, one related primarily to governmental price-fixing. Complaints under private medical-coverage plans that the physically fit bear an undue burden for the illness-prone obese merely point to the plans’ deficiency of disregarding actuarial risk.
But what about the children? Obesity is increasing among the young—mustn’t government intervene? That road is riddled with landmines. Will a status of overweight some day be prima-facie evidence of child abuse? Will government officials remove children from their homes on the basis of diet?
Food choices are a private matter outside the legitimate purview of federal officialdom. Obesity should disappear as a public policy issue. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be of concern to individuals, because it certainly should. And it’s a perfectly legitimate interest of private organizations that want to educate people about healthful eating habits. How much each of us weighs and what we eat are just not among Washington’s constitutional assignments. Not every aspect of life in a free society is automatically a responsibility of politicians.
Unfortunately, government has sunk its teeth into this issue with the gusto of the famished devouring a juicy steak. Legislators are lining up to impose special taxes on fatty foodstuffs. Private and public lawyers, their appetites whetted by their triumphs over Big Tobacco, are salivating at the prospect of utilizing junkonomics for lawsuits against Big Food. What a commentary on how far at least some Americans have strayed from what our Founders intended barely two hundred years ago!
Please pass the French fries.