Lighten Up

Fri Jul. 8, 2005 3:10 PM EDT

Today Paul Krugman writes on the overblown free-market rhetoric that is being enlisted by the food industry and its P.R. hacks to ensnare commonsense governmental efforts against obesity:

[T]he industry's companies proclaim themselves good guys, committed to healthier eating. Meanwhile, they outsource the campaigns against medical researchers and the dissemination of crude anti-anti-obesity propaganda to industry-financed advocacy groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom.

More broadly, the ideological landscape has changed drastically since the 1960s. (That change in the landscape also has a lot to do with corporate financing of advocacy groups, but that's a tale for another article.) In today's America, proposals to do something about rising obesity rates must contend with a public predisposed to believe that the market is always right and that the government always screws things up….

[O]nly a blind ideologue or an economist could argue with a straight face that Americans were rationally deciding to become obese. … Above all, we need to put aside our anti-government prejudices and realize that the history of government interventions on behalf of public health, from the construction of sewer systems to the campaign against smoking, is one of consistent, life-enhancing success. Obesity is America's fastest-growing health problem; let's do something about it.

Obesity and childhood obesity are, as studies have shown, a major problem in America—over 65 percent of adults are overweight, and just under a third of children 6 to19 years old are overweight or at risk to be overweight. As Krugman points out, the costs are born by all of us--thin or fat--through higher medical premiums and government expenditures on preventable health costs. But by offering up nary a word about what reasonable, constructive, government action on this issue might look like, Krugman is letting groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom set up ludicrous strawmen.

So what might a constructive governmental approach to food health look like? Well, if the government is going to run a farm subsidy program at all, at least it could try to bring them in line with its own food pyramid, rather than thrown billions to farmers producing unhealthy foods. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has gotten a lot of attention, both for his own dramatic weight loss (before and after) and for his state's steps like banning snack machines in public elementary schools and sending parents information on their child's Body Mass Index. The point is that there are many common sense efforts in education and prevention that government can take to fight the obesity epidemic short of dictatorial regulation.

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