This week the Los Angeles Times ran a debate between Yale obesity expert Kelly Brownell and University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, author of The Diet Myth: Why America's Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health. On the question of the health risks posed by weighing more than the government says you should, which is the focus of Campos' book, Brownell comes across as dismissive and evasive. "It is sad that we debate this issue at all," he declares in the second paragraph of his first essay, likening Campos and other skeptics of the War on Fat to people who question gravity, global warming, and the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Yet in the first paragraph Brownell attributes diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity to "poor diet and physical inactivity." The extent to which health is impaired by extra weight per se, as opposed to the poor diet and physical inactivity that tend to accompany it, is precisely the scientific question Campos raises, and Brownell dodges it completely.
In the second installment of the debate, which is supposed to address the question, "Why is our flab state business?," both contributions are disappointing. Brownell's answer is that the government already acts in various ways that affect diet and activity levels, so it might as well get even more involved and make sure its influence is positive. In short, since the government subsidizes corn and sends surplus cheese to schools, it should ban commercials for sugary breakfast cereals and redesign cities to discourage driving. Campos, who as a law professor ought to have some interest in the subject, does not address the grounds for government action at all, simply reiterating his point that public officials should not mislead people about the health hazards of exceeding their "ideal" weight.
In the third round, Campos implicitly concedes that the government has a duty to "improve public health," by which he means discouraging Americans from making decisions that might lead to disease or injury. His policy recommendations, however, are limited to disseminating better information about nutrition, exercise, and weight. Brownell, of course, goes further, but his proposals, which include ad restrictions and federally funded fruit in schools, are still remarkably lame for someone who aims to clean up America's "toxic food environment" and reverse the "obesity epidemic." He does not even seem to have convinced himself that the policies he advocates would be effective. He endorses mandating nutrition information on restaurant menus, for instance, then slams the food industry a few paragraphs later for arguing that "education is the answer to nutrition problems."