Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Prohibition" returning?

What if restaurants throughout this country were too scared of a lawsuit to sell foods deemed fattening? It's not a far-fetched possibility, at least if a misguided gaggle of lawyers, legislators and researchers get their way.

Chicago is the latest focal point in a movement to create a slimmer America. Alderman Edward Burke this June proposed a citywide ban on the use of cooking with oils containing artificial trans fatty acids in restaurants that do at least $20 million a year worth of business. Establishments not in compliance would face fines ranging from $200 to $1,000 per day.

"We have to be very careful when we start telling everybody how to live their lives," cautioned Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor perhaps is making up for keeping a low profile in the face of recent bans enacted by the Board of Aldermen on smoking in restaurants and bars and on the selling of foie gras (a liver delicacy).

Elsewhere, dozens of states either have introduced or passed legislation aimed at curbing obesity. Measures include restricting advertising to children; requiring schools to provide parents with information about student body mass index; requiring schools to provide diabetes screening; mandating insurance coverage for obesity prevention and treatment; and establishing nutrition education programs. A University of Baltimore-affiliated think tank, the Schaefer Center for Public Policy, has created an annual "Obesity Report Card" to keep the heat on states to do more.

Granted, there never will be a shortage of people who, lacking in impulse control, prefer to gorge themselves without regard to health consequences. But to use that as a pretext to limit the range of pleasures available to all of us has an unpleasant ring of familiarity. Prohibition operated on this very premise: Let us combat the temptation to take an activity to excess by banning the activity outright. Don't bother telling our latter-day Prohibitionists about the necessity of self-control. Whether the object of their wrath is food or alcohol, such talk merely serves as a cover for the irresponsible pursuit of profit.

For a good decade or more, Kelly Brownell, a paunchy Yale psychologist and top adviser to the deceptively effective Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, has called for punitive taxes on unhealthy food. "I recommend we develop a militant attitude about the toxic food environment, like we have about tobacco," he has written in CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter.

The plaintiff's bar, ever searching for victims to represent, has been exercising its own militancy. In August 2002, lawyers for Ashley Pelman, an overweight adolescent girl from the Bronx, N.Y., and other class-action plaintiffs, sued McDonald's, charging the corporation with deceptive marketing and advertising of "addictive" food. U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet dismissed the case early the following year, arguing, "If customers know the risks, they cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products." If only he had left things at that.

Unfortunately, Judge Sweet also offered the plaintiffs advice on how to remedy their suit, emphasizing that McDonald's customers should have access to more thorough information. Predictably, Pelman's lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, two years later filed an amended complaint, albeit on narrower grounds. John "Sue the Bastards" Banzhaf, a renowned George Washington University law professor and adviser to the plaintiffs, is hopeful Hirsch will discover documents embarrassing to the corporation.

For the record, in a separate case several years ago some of Banzhaf's students took McDonald's to court, winning a $12.5 million judgment from the company, plus a public apology for claiming its french fries were cooked in pure vegetable oil. He knows which side his bread is buttered. Such outcomes suggest almost limitless opportunities for creative pleading. Why, after all, stop at punishing the sale of fatty foods? Why not prohibit any activity that contributes to obesity?

New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D) already has this bright idea. A few years ago the Brooklyn legislator proposed six separate bills that would have slapped high taxes on the sale of fatty foods, movie tickets, video games, DVD rentals and other items ostensibly promoting sedentary living. The projected extra $50 million a year in revenue, he argued, could be earmarked for public exercise and nutrition programs.

In the face of such zealotry, thankfully, are signs of resistance. Nearly a year ago the House of Representatives passed the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act (H.R. 554). This measure would shield food distributors and restaurants from civil liability for obesity-related claims. The Senate, with typical glacially-paced deliberation, has yet to act on its own companion measure (S. 908). More promisingly, roughly two dozen states to date have banned obesity lawsuits against restaurants.

Few would dispute obesity is a real and growing problem. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that 44 million Americans were clinically obese in 2001, a 74 percent increase over the figure for 1991. And the U.S. Surgeon General estimated early this decade that nearly 10 percent of the nation's health care expenditures -- $117 billion annually -- are attributable to obesity and/or physical inactivity. The public tab for treating diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and other obesity-related complications is enormous, especially for patients without insurance.

But instead of getting people to slim down by discovering villains, there's a better avenue for action. It's called the market. People, by nature, tend to want to live as long as they can. And they have a tendency to seek information enabling them to do this. In recent decades, there has been a welcome explosion of preventive health care information available through magazines, the Internet, diet books, exercise courses and employer-sponsored wellness programs. Smart consumers tend to read up on these things.

Restaurants know it's a different world, too. That's why family-style chains such as Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's have devoted parts of their menus to accommodating the calorie-conscious. Fast-food chains such as Subway and Baja Fresh openly tout themselves as healthy low-fat alternatives to their competitors. Even big, bad McDonald's has adjusted to the new realities, phasing out its supersized portions and introducing items such as salads and yogurt parfaits.

The campaign to punish purveyors of "toxic" foods, however, works against such tendencies. John Banzhaf, Felix Ortiz, Kelly Brownell and like-minded activists might deny it, but they harbor a deep mistrust of most people's ability to exercise sound judgment. The "social responsibility" they would impose upon restaurants and other food retailers is a pricey ticket to individual irresponsibility.


When Moms Work, Kids Get Fat

An incendiary new explanation for childhood obesity

The Western world is, famously, full of fat kids. It is not clear why. Could it be because of the insidious power of advertising? Or the fear of traffic and kidnappers, which persuades parents to keep their children indoors? Or should we just blame the steady spread of fast food? All three, it seems, are guilty-or so say economists, who in recent years have started publishing a bewildering array of explanations for the obesity epidemic.

Shin-Yi Chou, Inas Rashad, and Michael Grossman have recently published research pointing at the effect of fast-food advertising. The difficulty of any such research project is the tangle of causal factors. A child who is watching Ronald McDonald cavort around with Hamburglar on television is a child in easy reach of snack food, a child who is not playing football in the street, and, perhaps, a child with parents who lack the inclination or time to help the him stay healthy. Or perhaps the child is simply watching television in the first place because he's too fat to enjoy playing outside.

Chou, Rashad, and Grossman nevertheless think they have found a clear effect by looking at local variations in advertising across the United States. They believe that if a given child watches an extra 30 minutes of fast-food advertisements a week, he or she will get fatter, with an increase in body mass index of about 1 percent. For adolescents the effect is twice as big, which sounds plausible given that they are likely to have more control over what they eat than younger children do.

That is all very interesting, but it does beg the question of why things are getting worse. Another trio of economists-Patricia Anderson, Kristin Butcher, and Phillip Levine-has suggested that two-income families may be producing the problem. They find that children are fatter if their mothers work longer hours. This is true even within families: The sibling who spent more time as a latchkey child will tend to be the fatter one, perhaps because the mother is less able to supervise outdoor play or has less time to cook and therefore buys more fast food. Unfortunately for working mothers who are already struck by guilt, the effects are pretty substantial. A mere 10 hours at work raises the chance of childhood obesity by 1.3 percentage points, which is about 10 percent.

Despite all the concerns about childhood obesity, most of the fat people in the world are old enough to look after themselves. So, what's going on? Here, traditional economics seems to offer a perfectly straightforward pair of explanations. First, the cost of exercise has risen: Most of us used to be paid to burn off calories in physically demanding jobs, after all. It is hard to undercut a form of exercise that pays you, and modern gyms haven't tried.

Second, food technology has tipped the balance in favor of more snacking. Think of the humble potato, once consumed in bland form, boiled or in stews: It was messy and time-consuming to make fries. But industrial processing, freezing, and vacuum-packing now make fries and chips easy to enjoy at home or in a fast-food joint. It is not just that potato chips are more calorific than boiled spuds, but that they can be conveniently eaten at any time of day. Despite the attention devoted to "supersize" portions, the calories consumed at main meals have actually declined.

Three Harvard economists, David Cutler, Edward Glaeser, and Jesse Shapiro, argue that food technology has dramatically lowered the cost in time and money of grazing on junk food all day. Judging by the ever-expanding waistlines of the developed world, that seems to be an opportunity many of us have seized upon hungrily.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? [/sarcasm].


No comments: