by J.D. Tuccille
June 20, 2003

Beware of Food Cops

The "fat tax" -- a joke just a few years ago -- is gaining increasing support, if not respectability. Apparently troubled by the growing heftiness of his fellow New Yorkers, Felix Ortiz, an Empire State legislator, proposed a one-percent levy on so-called "junk food." Across the Atlantic, the British Medical Association wants a whopping 17.5% tax on high-fat treats. Revenue from the New York tax would fund anti-obesity efforts similar to the government's much-mocked anti-drug advertising campaign. The British tax is overtly aimed at making "bad" food too expensive to purchase.

There's no doubt that Americans, on average, cast larger shadows than in the past. Even as fitness crazes have come and gone, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that the ranks of Americans considered "obese" swelled from 12.0% in 1991 to 19.8% in 2000 -- or from 15% in 1980 to 31% in 2000, according to a different set of CDC numbers. Either way, more people are lugging more of themselves around than ever before.

So what, you ask? Sure, love handles aren't healthy -- extra weight strains the heart and potentially shaves years off people's lives. But those of us who prefer a slimmer profile and a healthier lifestyle are free to graze on veggies and feel righteous as we jog past our sedentary, snacking neighbors.

But food cops like George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf say that what you eat is no personal matter. Banzhaf spearheaded lawsuits against tobacco companies, arguing that smoking increases health problems, and so drives up insurance premiums for everybody. He and his allies have dusted off their arguments -- and tactics -- to protect Americans against yet another vice: a taste for fatty foods.

Of course, virtually every lifestyle choice has the potential to affect health care costs, including your choice of meals, jobs and recreation. Across an entire population, people's decisions drive insurance premiums up or down. If we're going to micro-manage people's lives to reduce health care costs, there's no reason to stop at greasy french fries.

Doing little to defuse charges that he's a professional busybody who'd like to run our lives for us, Banzhaf claims, "It's not just a matter of individual choice. Advertising influences the decisions we make.'' His argument simultaneously allows him to excuse fat people from the consequences of their decisions and to dismiss concerns over personal freedom by claiming that we're all too stupid to ignore come-ons for potato chips and fast-food restaurants.

The argument that advertising invalidates personal choices raises some interesting questions in a republic. If people are too dumb to make up their own minds amidst a hailstorm of thirty-second spots, why bother to hold the next round of elections? Perhaps Banzhaf and company could just pick the "right" winners for us.

Besides Assemblyman Ortiz, some seemingly smart people actually buy the argument that we need to be saved from ourselves. Newsweek online columnist Gersh Kuntzman calls the fat tax "the greatest idea since sliced bread." He likens a taste for junk food to his "addiction" to sugary apple juice which, he says, sent his once-svelte figure skyrocketing to over 200 pounds. High taxes on junk food might convince people to switch to fruit and vegetables, he says, just as Kuntzman's friends intervened to convince him to switch from apple juice to water.

In fact, Kuntzman's own example undermines his support for dietary coercion. After all, he kicked his half-gallon-a-day habit on his own, without the need for taxes to send the price of his preferred beverage beyond reach or a government campaign to convince him of the error of his ways. Does he really think the rest of us are incapable of exercising the same meal-time willpower?

In fact, the food cops' seem to share a common belief in their own wisdom, reinforced by contempt for the decisions that the rest of us might make if not poked and prodded in the "right" direction. If we're to maintain any say over our own lives, perhaps the one menu item we need to eliminate is the super-sized order of meddlers who want to boss us around.

This column was published June 22, 2003 in the Arizona Daily Sun.

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