We are responsible in fat fight — not lawyers, not courts

While millions of us are still struggling to shed those extra holiday pounds, food activists, personal injury lawyers and bureaucrats say we don’t have to make the effort — it’s up to Congress and the courts to produce a trimmer America.

John Foreyt, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College, predicts that if trends continue, every American will be overweight or obese by 2040. Activists claim this crisis calls for government intervention, but government has waged a fight against fat for over 50 years — and to no effective end.

Failed efforts include the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s body mass index measurement of obesity, which has proven to be an imprecise assessment tool. According to the BMI, Michael Jordan and numerous other pro and college athletes are actually overweight! This inaccuracy has also produced false statistical results.

Consider that in 1998, scientists lowered the BMI’s obesity standard from 30 to 29, adding 10 million extra people to the heavyweight ranks. These flexible figures fuel the fear that fat is even more expensive — and threatening — than smoking.

Though genetics plays a role in obesity, the chief cause of this problem is unhealthy behavior. In an industrialized society, we have lots of high calorie, cheap food; we drive cars instead of walking; and we are paid to work long days sitting at desks, but we must pay to use a gym. The relative cost of staying fit versus becoming obese is higher than ever before, but even when individuals fail to stay fit, it does not follow that government is required to step in.

Yet activists and their allies in much of the media blame the food industry and our environment for forcing us to be fat.

Food companies surrender under this allegation. The Coca-Cola Company and Kraft Foods Inc. have stopped advertising to children. McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants have tried — and failed — to sell healthy food, despite a massive marketing campaign. At the end of the day, fast-food chains cannot sell salads to a population that chooses super-sized fries.

What’s sad is that against all the evidence, many policymakers argue that choice has nothing to do with it. They assert that citizens cannot act in their own self-interest because our industrialized environment is removed from our natural state. Psychologist Patrick O’Neil, director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, asserts, “We’re programmed to store energy from our earlier days. Genes load the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.”

Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, says there has been a shift in our perception of obesity: We no longer see it as a personal problem, but rather as a societal responsibility.

Unfortunately, some people even take their weight problems to court. The American Tort Reform Association calls the new judicial phenomenon — which essentially allows a jury the powers of Congress, state legislatures and regulatory agencies — “regulation through litigation.” Trial lawyers are more than happy to raid the deep pockets of fast-food and beverage businesses.

Responding to this liability problem, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, which would protect food vendors against civil liability claims for obesity.

How ironic that Congress has been the one to remind citizens of our personal responsibilities. Let’s make a new resolution for 2006: When it comes to weight control, leave the government — and the lawyers — out of it.

Diana Ernst is a public policy fellow in health care studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.