Government binges on anti-obesity campaigns

San Francisco Examiner, January 21, 2010

Many Americans have made a resolution to lose weight in the new year. That’s admirable. What’s not so admirable is the recent barrage of efforts advanced by government officials to “help” them slim down by taxing or even outlawing foods deemed unhealthy.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom attracted national attention in late 2009 with his proposal for a tax on sugary beverages. It was his second attempt to levy a soda tax to fight obesity. Other big cities have mounted similar efforts. Most recently, New York City public health officials generated nationwide disgust with their graphic advertisements of a man guzzling liquefied fat as part of their anti-soda campaign.

Government efforts like these may be well-intentioned, but they’ve done nothing to curb the rise of obesity in this country.

Consider the drive for more comprehensive menu labeling at fast-food restaurants. Many officials claim that Americans would make different choices if they knew the caloric truth about their food.

But people already have plenty of information about what’s on their plate.

Chain restaurants have made nutritional information available for years — on Web sites, napkins, placemats, posters and even menus. And since 1994, all packaged food sold in the United States has been clearly labeled with nutritional information.

Despite all that information, Americans are fatter than ever. Between 1995 and 2007, the percentage of obese Americans increased by two-thirds.

This isn’t surprising. Most of us know that a salad is healthier than a bacon cheeseburger.

Even if activists were able to discourage the consumption of certain foods and drinks through bans and taxes, it’s not clear that obesity rates would change.

Take soda taxes. The only two states that levy a specific tax on soda — West Virginia and Arkansas — have among the highest obesity rates in the country.

It’s no secret that Americans are gaining weight. But it’s not clear that we’re getting quite as fat as government busybodies are telling us.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use the Body Mass Index to determine obesity rates. BMI is essentially the ratio of a person’s weight to their height. A score between 18.5 and 25 is considered healthy. Anything between 25 and 30 is overweight, and a score of more than 30 labels a person obese. Using this formula, the CDC claims that two-thirds of American adults are overweight while one-third are obese.

But the BMI is a notoriously inexact tool. Indeed, a decade ago the government arbitrarily slid the number for a healthy BMI down from 27 to 25.

Overnight, more than 25 million Americans went from being healthy to “overweight.”

The BMI also doesn’t differentiate between mass from muscle and mass from fat. So a gym rat in perfect shape can still qualify as “unhealthy” because of his bulging biceps. In fact, the reigning MVPs in professional hockey, basketball, baseball and football are all “overweight,” according to the BMI. Many professional football players are obese!

The primary culprit for the country’s weight gain has been an epidemic of physical inactivity. Fully 60 percent of Americans don’t regularly exercise, according to the CDC. A quarter of folks aren’t active at all.

Americans’ love affair with electronics is largely to blame. According to a study from A.C. Nielsen, the average American spends a whopping 60 days a year in front of the television. The same study found that the average amount of time Americans spent playing video games went up 25 percent in the past four years.

Taxing or banning tasty foods won’t make us thinner — it will just deprive us of yet another small pleasure. Perhaps we can all resolve to keep nosy government officials away from the dinner table in the new year.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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