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Obesity: 'The government can't fix it'

July 31, 2009 |  4:46 pm

It's been all-obesity, all-the-time this week, hasn't it?

  • A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that obesity was costing this country $147 billion annually in healthcare costs.
  • An obesity summit -- "Weight of the Nation" -- in Washington, D.C, at which Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stressed the importance of fighting this scourge.
  • And then, of course, a proposal from the Urban Institute that junk food be taxed to nudge people to eat less as well as help pay for those added healthcare costs. (And boy does the American public hate that idea, if the comments to a post here by Melissa Healy are anything to go by.)

Many are outraged at the notion that the government social engineer in any way to try to halt the fattening of America: sabers are rattling and the hills are a-ringing with cries of "Nanny State!" Then, of course, there's the issue of whether such social engineering -- junk taxes but also kicking sodas out of schools, restricting junk-food TV ads -- will work.

One who argues that it wouldn't is Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle.

In one entry, on discouraging driving, banning TV ads, changing school environments and more, she writes:

"The political opposition these actions would face is absolute[ly] enormous.  Americans were not blindly seduced into an auto-based lifestyle by the paver's union; they voted for lots of roads because they like their cars.  Every president since Reagan has wanted to eliminate farm subsidies, and every president since Reagan has thoroughly, utterly, entirely failed.  Similarly, the food and entertainment industries are not going to stand idly by while you do away with 10% of advertising revenue." 

In another post, she pours cold water on the notion of persuasion as a tactic: "I don't really care if the government tries to persuade people to make better choices.  But in general, government efforts to persuade people have failed" -- she cites, as an example, the fried-egg "this-is-your-brain-on-drugs" ads, "which have not made any noticeable dent in the behavior they were trying to change."

McArdle, in another post, interviews law professor Paul Campos of the University of Colorado, author of the 2004 book, "The Obesity Myth." Campos thinks the health effects of carrying extra weight have been hugely exaggerated, and McArdle appears to agree.

Another Atlantic blogger, Marc Ambinder, has very different views on what the government should do/can do about the issue of obesity -- he and McArdle are involved in a back-and-forth on the topic right now. Ambinder argues that efforts should be focused on preventing obesity in children, both because they are vulnerable and because obesity prevention is more feasible than obesity reversal. "This debate isn't about government dictating lifestyle choices to adults," he says.

Just two voices among many: We'll try to dig up more in the coming weeks. Because, after all, the question of what works is a complex one.

The DARE anti-drug program comes to mind. So does the story of entrepreneurial British moms who went up to the railings of their kids' schools and sold junk food during recess after unhealthful food was banned at the school. My favorite example, though, was a study that found group therapy with delinquent kids encouraged, not diminished, antisocial behavior. Apparently the kids made friends with each other.

--Rosie Mestel