The Man Can't Bust Our Muselix

California's self-defeating war on bad health


No doubt dismayed by California's disappointing status as only the nation's eleventh least overweight state, anabolically incorrrect fitness freak Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) recently approved legislation that will make trans fats verboten in restaurant food and baked goods. In Los Angeles, the city council is doing its part to keep residents healthy by declaring a one-year moratorium on new fast food restaurants in a 32-square-mile chunk of the city's South Los Angeles, West Adams, Baldwin Village, and Leimert Park neighborhoods. And in San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors outlawed cigarette sales at drug stores like Walgreen's and Rite Aid.

Call it the flipside to Michael Moore's mouth-watering vision of universal healthcare as a tasty buffet of all-you-can-eat medical care. Instead of bottomless salad bowls of angioplasties and farm-fresh upper gastrointestinal endoscopies, it's Big Brother as Biggest Loser jackboot, regulating us all into tighter blue jeans and less costly LDL levels. Today, Moore and other reformers dream of living in England or France, where hip replacement is a fundamental human right, not just a medical procedure. Tomorrow, they may seek asylum in any country that does not consider double cheeseburgers a felony.

Not that anyone's taking the trans fat ban too hard; even the California Restaurant Association didn't put up much of a fight. Apparently, donuts fried in canola oil are just as tasty as their slightly more lethal counterparts fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening, customers seem to like the idea of trans fat-free food, and making the transition to non-hydrogenated alternatives provides a great excuse to jack up prices. One Southern California hamburger joint told The New York Times it will have to increase the price of its fries from $1.75 to at least $2.75 because of the change.

Similarly, the fact that there are already 400 or so fast-food outlets in the area of Los Angeles where the one-year moratorium will be enforced means a Happy Meal should still be easy to come by. Finally, banishing cigarettes from San Francisco pharmacies just means that smokers will be more likely to patronize liquor stores to get their nicotine fix—and anything that encourages addictive personalities to impulse-buy a quart of Jim Beam over an Odwalla Mo'Beta Smoothie can't be all bad for society, can it?

Or to put it another way: These laws are getting passed not because they promise to radically change things, but rather because they aren't going to change things enough to truly inconvenience anyone. Which also suggests they won't have much impact on California's eating and smoking habits. Trans fats will still be available in packaged foods. In burger-plagued South Los Angeles, sit-down restaurants already outnumber fast-food outlets by more than 100, but the ready availability of slowly delivered fare has apparently done little to curb local appetites for fries and shakes. Why it's necessary to penalize the fast food industry to attract Applebees and vegan cafes is a mystery the LA City Council has yet to divulge—it makes about as much sense as penalizing auto parts stores to attract yoga studios. But even if the moratorium does somehow result in more sit-down restaurants, waistlines may actually expand. After all, the absence of a clown mascot doesn't automatically knock 500 calories and 20 grams off every dish on the menu.

And when these measures don't really have much impact on public health, what next? It's probably best to think of trans fat bans and fast-food moratoriums as appetizers, small portions of government waistline engineering designed to get us used to even more proscriptive preemptive strikes against obesity and other health issues. And indeed, who can blame government officials for thinking this way? As we continue to normalize the idea that unlimited health care is something the government owes us, why shouldn't the government demand more compliance from us in exchange for the care it renders?

In Japan, the government requires anyone between the ages of 40 and 74 have their waistline measured on an annual basis. If they don't meet certain standards—33.5 inches for men, 35.4 inches for women—their employers or local governments are subject to fines. So much for the Masters sumo circuit, so much for bean paste Fridays, and so much for the old-fashioned idea that what one does in the privacy of one's dining room should have little bearing on one's employment status.

Of course, it's all but impossible to imagine the U.S. adopting a similar policy. Too many of our most passionate healthcare reformers would end up on the wrong side of the divide; even Arnold is looking pretty thick in the middle these days. But really, if increasingly proscriptive waistline engineering is the price we're doomed to pay as we increasingly turn to the government to provide us with healthcare, the Japanese model is a more palatable alternative to the bans and moratoriums we're currently experimenting with.

At least it preserves a certain measure of personal choice: Eat all the trans fat you want, but just know that you might be risking your job. Surely, this is an approach Arnold Schwarzenegger can sympathize with. Without his multi-decade diet of steroids, he might not even be Jean-Claude Van Damme, much less governor of California. But he had the freedom to consume steroids without government intervention. And while doing so exposed him to myriad medical dangers, it ultimately paid off in spectacular fashion. If only he'd acknowledge that the next time he gets the urge to make our health choices for us.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.