Food Fight

Anti-fat police are ready to bust heads


"Public Health Is Everybody's Business," read the button a chirping woman pushed into my hand at November's annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in San Francisco. A day later I discovered firsthand that public health is everybody's business but mine. I was "escorted" out of the meeting for the crime of documenting what America's food fascists have planned for our plates.

A man in a "Howard Dean" cap, who refused to identify himself, made a fuss when he discovered that an operative from the Center for Consumer Freedom had infiltrated the event. (It wasn't hard; I wore my professional affiliation on my name badge.) Standing in front of my camera, he loudly proclaimed to the room that I was with a "right-wing foundation," and claimed that I had misrepresented myself. Maybe it was a personal thing—he told the group that CCF and I hate fat people like him. He managed to get me ejected for videotaping the proceedings, and I left to the sound of a hundred busybodies clapping. (Although not before one duly noted to an official that she had seen me taping other sessions. I wondered if she hoped they would ransack my hotel room.)

Never mind that the conference (for which I paid my $500) had no official rule against recording. Or that I was told members of the media were welcome to make videos. APHA members didn't want me to record what they were up to, and I can't blame them. If Americans were aware of what this group and social engineers like it have are planned, they would gag on their Grand Slam Breakfasts.

APHA members used to worry primarily about preventing AIDS and slowing the spread of contagious diseases. Now their big concern is what you and your family eat. Politically charged talk about the so-called "epidemic" of obesity has, itself, reached epidemic proportions. Elected officials, presidential candidates, mid-level bureaucrats, and left-wing activist leaders are playing a high-profile game of leapfrog to see who can come up with the most outrageous proposals.

Busybodies are looking to control one of the most basic of human functions—eating. Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate snack-food and soft-drink marketing. New York state assemblyman Felix Ortiz promotes a draconian "Twinkie tax." At least one person who's had the Bush Administration's ear has bought into the idea that Americans are not accountable for their own weights. "Many people believe that dealing with overweight and obesity is a personal responsibility," former Surgeon General David Satcher recently said. "To some degree they are right, but it is also a community responsibility." It takes a Samoan village.

The American Public Health Association is over 125 years old. More than 60 percent of the full-time researchers and policymakers at state Departments of Health are APHA members. And over 13,500 members attended last month's San Francisco meeting. It was ground zero for planning Public Health's "next big thing."

Attendees were well versed in obesity-epidemic rhetoric, chuckling en masse at anti-corporate jokes. In their world, it's an article of faith that the food industry is largely to blame for America's collective weight problem. It's no surprise that they loved media darling Marion Nestle's talk on food politics at a session sponsored by APHA's Socialist Caucus.

Speaker after speaker scorned the notion that individual Americans are responsible for their own choices. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI—the Ralph Nader spinoff that has already ruined movie popcorn for millions of us), made no effort to hide her agenda. "We have got to move beyond personal responsibility," she pleaded with her audience. In a session titled "The Politics of Food," Skip Spitzer of the radical Pesticide Action Network added that "the idea of 'personal responsibility'" is merely "a cultural construct," ready to be superseded for our own good.

Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell, best known as the father of the "Twinkie tax," was one of the meeting's most popular speakers. Showing some politicking skill, Brownell suggested that activists should make use of children to sidestep commonsense arguments about personal choices: "Another, very utilitarian reason for focusing on children, of course, is then you get away from these arguments about personal responsibility."

Incidentally, Brownell scoffed at the idea that obesity can be successfully treated and reversed. Funny he should think so. The Associated Press noted last year that he gained a good deal of weight while writing a book. The experience apparently "kept him relatively sedentary and snack-prone." In San Francisco, Brownell appeared considerably leaner and meaner, but offered no hint as to which tax or other government program helped him shed the extra pounds.

Robert Ross, CEO of the $3.4-billion California Endowment, led a session named (without a hint of irony) "Is Childhood Obesity the Next Tobacco?" that boasted some of the convention's most heated rhetoric. Ross asked: "Do we go out for all out holy war against industry from day one?" Answering his own question, he later declared that "the most prolific weapons of mass destruction in this country are a cheeseburger and a soda."

What would the world look like if decision-makers listened to these nannycrats? Public Health Institute lawyer Edward Bolen provided a glimpse of their Utopia, promoting very specific policy ideas. He called for tobacco-style restrictions on food, including price controls; minimum age requirements to buy certain foods (Does a bag of chips really need to be rated "R"?); zoning limits on the number, density, and location of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores; and even outright product bans. "Any sort of interaction you can put between [a] consumer and the product is going to cut the use," Bolen noted.

Shrewd stuff indeed. But don't expect these activists to be honest while they remake American cuisine. Imagining a world where 7-11 stores would have to move high-calorie snacks behind the counter (presumably next to the cigarettes and porn magazines), Bolen mused, "You can probably rationalize it as cutting down on shoplifting."

Driving extra miles for a burger, showing your license to buy a Snickers, paying $10 for a soda (outside the movie theater)—this still isn't enough. Public health activists are hinting at their preference for completely abolishing some distinctly American foods we all love. CSPI's Wootan noted—as if it were a bad thing—that "Eating out is more affordable; it's very convenient." Arguing that companies should be forced to stop marketing certain foods, Kelly Brownell added that the food industry "cannot be let off the hook for all the unhealthy products they're still promoting."

Luckily, my presence at the APHA conference wasn't noticed until its penultimate day; I was able to record a good deal of the goings-on before then. And in many cases, my camera was the only one rolling. The mass media showed remarkably little interest in a meeting attended by thousands of professionals who influence policy at every level of government, and whose endgame looks a lot like circa-1982 Soviet supermarkets. Why? Because many journalists agree with the activists. And a few high-profile broadcasters have already drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid (sugar-free, of course). A recent Peter Jennings ABC special, How to get fat without really trying, implied just with its title that our weight is not our fault. Which should really motivate the channel-surfer on the couch eating another bag of Doritos.

People laughed a few years ago when The Onion ran a spoof titled "Hershey's Ordered To Pay Obese Americans $135 Billion." It was obviously silly to think that society would deem chocoholics blameless for their own overindulgence. But after spending a few days listening to the people staffing our nation's Public Health infrastructure, I'm not laughing anymore.