Thursday, December 12, 2002

When Caesar Barber suffered his second heart attack in 1999, his cardiologist rightly told him to lay off the junk food. At the time, Mr. Barber, in his mid-50s and 285 pounds, self-admittedly trundled into fast-food restaurants “five to six times a week, two to three meals a day.” To most people, that would seem to be an obvious if not chief factor in his terrible health. But Mr. Barber isn’t most people. He ignored the good doctor’s advice, and took a trial lawyer’s instead. Earlier this year, Mr. Barber filed suit in New York’s Supreme Court against a host of fast-food companies, blaming them for his deteriorating health.

For obvious reasons, Mr. Barber’s case didn’t make the best impression. So, in early September the same lawyer and some of the same plaintiffs filed a new class-action more suited to play to the public’s sympathies. This one highlighted the plight of two overweight girls and the sinister plot by McDonald’s to fatten them up with irresistible goodies like Happy Meals and promotional toys.

To most serious-minded people, holding the fast-food industry to blame for individual choices is a silly notion. But to a bored Cabinet secretary apparently with too little on his platter, the issue held purpose. To that end, in mid-October Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson hauled in representatives from the fast-food industry for the first meeting in a “long-term collaboration.” That’s bureaucratic-speak for government scapegoating and hamburger warning labels and the like.

When it comes to obesity, HHS demonstrates a pattern of disingenuity. The Health and Human Services Department likes to point out, for example, that obesity has soared in the United States. Indeed, to hear Mr. Thompson, Americans are in the midst of an “obesity epidemic.” This year, 31 percent of adults are deemed obese, a sharp rise from 23 percent in 1994. That’s a deeply troubling statistic.

It’s also highly misleading. America’s stout-bodied ranks didn’t swell by eight percent in as many years. Rather, in 1997 the U.S. changed its standard to conform to the stricter definition of the United Nations’ World Health Organization. Literally overnight, millions of adults previously classified as slim and trim found themselves overweight.

Which is not to say that obesity isn’t a serious issue. But there are a host of (mostly sad) sociological factors that contribute to Americans’ unhealthy lifestyles the overdependence on automobiles, for example, the decline of public recreation and the increase in single-parent homes. The fast-food industry sells food, period. It’s up to the individual and not the government whether hamburgers are a smart meal choice every day.

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