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Today’s Charley Reese column is about Americans’ right to be fat, and how government has no business in the anti-obesity business. I’m usually a big fan of Mr. Reese, but his curmudgeonliness can get a bit much at times. This is one of those situations where I don’t think he has enough information to be able to present a reasonable position.
First off, it’s within government’s mandate to keep the citizenry safe, without overly limiting our rights in the process. Obesity is considered to be a disease that seriously adversely affects the health, safety and happiness of the people, and thus is fair game for government attention. The quest is, what kind of attention? Pointing out the issue and tracking waistline trends is the minimum government can do. Offering tax incentives for gym memberships is another level. Legislating healthy behaviours and portion sizes is, obviously, not a tenable path in a Western democracy.
Second, in Canada’s case, one can make a straight-line argument that poor public health is economically deleterious, given our socialized medical system. Fat Boy next door to me is taking a bite out of my wallet each time he reaches for that next twinkie, since my tax dollars will be paying for his quadruple bypass –tax dollars that could be spent on better schools, better roads, anti-poverty programmes or curing cancer.
On the other hand, it’s Fat Boy’s right to reach for that twinkie, just as it’s Pale Girl’s right to suck back that third pack of cigarettes. Our economy has responded to the latter, though, by instituting the “sin tax”, which forces smokers to cough up (pun intended) extra dough for the health care system. In fact, the sin tax in Ontario is so high that smokers more than pay for their own drain on the system. Is a fat tax wobbling down the road?
Clearly, our society’s values are not compatible with government affecting what we do with our bodies. But, as I discussed in this article several years ago, the government already controls what we put into our bodies. It is illegal, for example, for us to inject heroin into our veins or to try to kill ourselves. The underlying legal assumption is that it is better for us to be “healthy”, and that we all strive to be “healthy”, thus the laws of the land should strive to assist us in becoming and staying “healthy” –which is a bit hypocritical, considering all the laws based upon maintaining structures, institutionsand products which make us unhealthy, such as pollution and insecticides.
Which brings me to my last point, that government has a responsibility to protect us, not from our selves necessarily, but from forces in society which seek to do us harm. Yes, this includes terrorists and criminals, but more importantly it includes corporate interests whose agendas are often orthogonal to humanistic interests.
In the context of obesity, it’s government’s responsibility to encourage companies to reduce the amount of high fructose corn syrup in food products, for example, just as it was its duty to compel companies to label their products with meaningful ingredients. HFCS is a cheaper, sweeter sugar alternative which is metabolized differently from glucose; it reduces satiety and increases belly fat, and is thus a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.
It is government’s responsibility to discourage manufacturers from separating wheat into its three components –bran, germ and endosperm. The latter is nutritionally barren, yet makes up the bulk of wheat products our society consumes. It’s government’s job to discourage the use of partially hydrogenated oils in the place of plain old healthy fat; the former is cheaper, but is nutritionally toxic.
In short, there is much government can and should be doing to protect us, not from ourselves, but from food manufacturers whose cost-cutting manoeuvres are contributing to our fatness and to our society’s medical insurance meltdown.