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Can legislation prevent obesity in America?

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Dateline: August 10, 2003

Obesity... overweight... fat. No questions, it's one of this nation's worst and most costly health problems. But, can government, in its finest "we know what's best for you" tradition, actually outlaw obesity in America?

According to a recent Washington Post article, legislatures in at least 25 states are currently debating more than 140 bills aimed at curbing obesity.

New state laws currently under consideration would restrict the sale of soda and candy in public schools, require fast-food chains to post fat and sugar content directly on all menu boards, and even attempt to tax the fat away.

According to the Post, six bills proposed by New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D) would slap hefty taxes on not only fatty foods, "but also modern icons of sedentary living -- movie tickets, video games and DVD rentals." Ortiz estimates his tax laws would haul in over $50 million a year, which New York could use to fund public exercise and nutrition programs.

"We have focused on smoking; now it is about time we fight obesity," Ortiz told the Post.

Over 44 million Americans are now considered obese, with an associated increase in cases of serious and costly diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure. As costs to health plans of obesity-driven illnesses soar, the success of anti-smoking legislation passed during the 1990s and the seatbelt laws of the 1970s have lawmakers thinking similar laws could help force Americans to push away from the table.

Obviously, civil libertarians and consumer rights groups do not like the idea of legislating eating behavior. "It's an individual responsibility issue," states Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom in the Post article. "If I'm going to shorten my own life by eating too much or being too sedentary, that may not be much different than shortening my life by riding a motorcycle without a helmet on."

On the other hand, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson cites the $117 billion spent annually on obesity-related health care when he states, "If we're really interested in holding down medical costs and improving the health of citizens, we have to do something about obesity."

Some insurance industry officials have suggested charging obese persons higher premiums. HHS Secretary Thompson, however, cautioned that doing so could run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws.

The most potentially contentious fat-fighting suggestion mentioned in the Post story came from Eric Topol, chief of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. Topol's suggestion would offer a federal income tax credit to slender people, while "the people ruining our health care economics [the obese] would pay the standard tax."

People who are able to be disciplined and lose weight should be rewarded," said Topol.

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