Big Fat Lie

Saving us before we eat again.


The other day I got a call from a producer who wanted me to appear on an NPR talk show as a critic of the burgeoning war on obesity. To illustrate the importance of the precedent set by the anti-smoking crusade, I suggested to her how the same arguments that were used against the tobacco companies could be used against fast food chains:

They know their products are unhealthy! They deliberately target children! They hook them before they're old enough to know better!

"You agree with those arguments?" she asked. I should have learned from that conversation how risky it is to play devil's advocate when yesterday's satire is today's news story. Instead, I decided to take it up a notch.

Appearing on the radio show the next morning, I pointed out that taxing food based on its nutritional content, a policy the two other guests supported, is an inefficient way of getting Americans to slim down. After all, such taxes would fall on the thin as well as the fat.

It makes more sense, I suggested, to have all Americans get on a scale once a year and pay a tax based on how overweight they are. That approach would encourage fatties to eat less and exercise more, and if they didn't at least they would compensate the rest of us for the extra medical costs they incur.

The host asked me if I was serious. His readiness to believe that I was actually endorsing this authoritarian scheme was all the more disconcerting because he had just accused me of ignoring the public health emergency represented by all those overflowing guts. Perhaps he thought I had finally seen the light.

Judging from the calls, most of the show's listeners had. Despite a few scattered references to personal responsibility, almost none of the callers questioned the assumption that the government has to do something about America's fat surplus.

I began to suspect that the whole thing was a put-on, a mock radio show aimed at driving me to despair over the triumph of the nanny state. One caller complained that many foods contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which he called a "poison." Clearly, he said, this was a case where government intervention was needed.

Or maybe, I ventured, this was a case where people worried about hydrogenated vegetable oil could read the ingredients and avoid products that contain it. The only reason for the government to get involved would be to impose this restriction on people who do not adopt it voluntarily.

The war on obesity, like the war on smoking, is all about protecting people from their own choices.Yet its Orwellian tacticians argue that their real aim is liberating people from the conditions that make them overeat.

"We know that people can become biologically predisposed to getting overfed," John Banzhaf, an anti-tobacco veteran turned fat fighter, recently told the British newspaper The Independent. "It's not an addiction exactly, but it doesn't leave people with a completely free choice in what they eat, either."

The Independent added that many Americans can't get healthy food even if they want it. "Once you head inland from the coasts, away from the big population centers and college towns," it reported, "the very notion of unprocessed fresh food" vanishes. "It's a straightforward question of availability, giving the lie to food industry claims that consumers can exercise free choice in deciding what to put in their mouths."

This is such an audacious misrepresentation that I don't know whether to refute it or simply stand in awe. While they may have trouble finding papayas or radicchio, health-conscious shoppers in even the dinkiest towns can easily get all the nutrients they need, stay thin, and keep their cholesterol low with a combination of inexpensive staples such as tuna, chicken, eggs, milk products, bread, pasta, rice, beans, potatoes, and unexotic fruits and vegetables.

The Independent's bizarre claim that it's impossible to eat a healthy diet in Middle America reflects a basic premise of the anti-fat movement: People do not freely choose what they eat; they are manipulated into bad habits by sneaky corporations. Hence punishing them for eating the wrong things (through special taxes) or shielding them from messages that might encourage them to do so (through advertising restrictions) enhances their freedom.

It once seemed safe to consider such ideas manifestly absurd. Sadly, that is no longer true.