Overweight and Obesity, Bathroom Scale

Obesity: The New Global Warming?

Here’s an issue governments can get fat on. Published in The Weekly Standard

Obesity is the new global warming, and the battle plan for the crusade against it was published in the August issue of the journal Lancet. Funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and coauthored by nine Ph.D.s, the document is entitled “Changing the Future of Obesity: Science, Policy, and Action.” Its appearance was timed to coincide with the September “High-level Meeting of the U.N. General Assembly” on noncommunicable diseases, with the intention of moving the fight to the international front burner.

The stated goal of the fat fighters is to fashion “integrated interventions throughout society — individuals, families, local, national, and international,” as well as “interventions across the life course for all demographic groups to reinforce and sustain long-term behavioral change.” Notice that’s all demographic groups, whether overweight or not.

A job so huge and important can’t be left to free individuals making personal choices. It’s a job for the international community. Thus, obesity prevention “should be considered in relevant trade, economic, agricultural, environmental, food, and health agreements and policies.” The paper urges that the U.N. “coordinate policies and funding to prevent obesity … across its agencies” (maybe through a body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?). The World Health Organization “should develop global standards, particularly for food and beverage marketing to children and for nutrient profiling.”

The U.N. can’t do it alone, of course. National governments “are the most important actors in reversing the obesity epidemic.” This means increasing the size and intrusiveness of governments already drowning in debt by passing new laws and endowing bureaucracies with broader regulatory mandates.

And what modern international crusade would be complete without targeting the automobile? “Healthy public policies” should “prioritize public transport, walking, and cycling environments, and safe recreation spaces in transport and urban planning policies and budget allocations.” Shades of Al Gore.

Wealth redistribution is another familiar component of fighting the bulge. Since the poor among us tend to be fatter, government leaders are called upon to “ensure [that] taxation and social policies support reduction of socioeconomic inequalities that contribute to health inequalities.” Also, “increased investment in population obesity monitoring” will be required. In other words, tax the rich to make us thin.

No lifestyle crisis is complete without villains to punish. Just as global-warming fighters want to tax carbon dioxide-producing industries and activities, the anti-obesity campaign calls for taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and “unhealthy food and beverages.” And in places like the United States where it is difficult to restrict speech, “corporate tax deductibility of advertising costs for unhealthy foods” should be eliminated to prevent the obesity pushers from promoting their toxic wares to the helpless masses.

Indeed, as in the warming controversy, only one side of the issue should be heard. Anti-obesity ideology holds that people are getting fatter because corporate villains wield undue influence in their greedy quest for profits, so all parties are urged to “limit the influence of commercial interests in policy making.”

And where would a government anti-obesity campaign be without calling in the professoriate to disgorge white papers, studies, and symposia to beat back the calories? Yes, there will be computer models! “New thinking and approaches, and the use of computational modeling are needed to create a better understanding of the interconnectedness and synergies of the whole system, and of its individual components and subsystems.” We have been here before.

By the way, lest you doubt the nexus between global warming and obesity, the Lancet authors make the connection explicit. “Obesity,” they write, “should be considered alongside other major issues that confront societies … [including] reduction of poverty in all countries, a sustainable food supply, and action against climate change, because they all have strong links with obesity prevention, including common causes and solutions.”

With the coming anti-obesity campaign so similar to the global-warming juggernaut, it seems clear that modern liberalism has devised a new strategy for imposing policies that it can’t attain through ordinary politicking. First, identify a crisis ostensibly caused by modern lifestyles and/or capitalism. Next, launch a multifaceted international response to prevent allegedly looming catastrophe. Third, act as if the desired policies are objective, scientific solutions. Fund it all by imposing onerous taxes on an expanding list of villainous enterprises, et voilà: Liberalism rides to the rescue. And if the strategy fails on one front, as it appears to have with global warming, find another crisis and start again.

Let me be clear: No one denies that obesity is a serious problem. Anyone who is overweight should eat less, eat better, and exercise more. We can argue about government’s proper role in promoting good nutrition. But there is a genuine crisis to consider as well—the obesity of government. We should not allow the need to encourage good health to be an excuse for empowering yet another economically enervating, bossy, bureaucratic behemoth dedicated to promoting political agendas more than to helping people control their weight.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.