Saturday, May 31, 2003

Some people in America are sure they know what you should be eating. In fact, they are so sure they are not willing just to stop at offering advice. They want to use the power of the government to coerce you into eating as they think you should.

But what if you don’t like what they want you to eat? What if you prefer something else? Well, they have a lot of nice, big words for that situation that amount in plain English to: You’ll get used to it.

The hook for the rise of this food fascism is the problem of obesity, which continues to rise in America among children as well as adults, despite all the diet and exercise fads. Obesity is linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other serious diseases.

So the experts are getting tired of waiting for the public to recognize their wisdom voluntarily. At the top of their increasingly coercive agenda is imposition of special punitive taxes on their disfavored foods.

Bills proposing such taxes are popping up in state legislatures all over the country. One proposes a special 1 percent excise tax on so-called junk food, as determined by the state Department of Health. Several others propose increasing the sales tax or imposing special excise taxes on soft drinks, or soft drink syrup.

Another bill proposes a special “selective” tax on candy, soft drinks, certain noncarbonated beverages, snack food and bakery items. Proposals in several states where food is exempt from the sales tax seek to remove the exemption for foods that are not politically correct. The disfavored foods in one such bill include bottled, ready-to-drink tea or coffee, sports drinks, spring or mineral water, and flavored milk products.

Other proposals seek to prohibit the use of food stamps for the now politically incorrect foods. Another bill seeks to ban the sale of cookies in schools.

Then there is the ultimate weapon of crippling lawsuits against restaurants and food manufacturers. One suit already filed claims it is the fault of McDonald’s that people are increasingly fat. Another suit blamed Oreo cookies for heart disease.

Just the threat of such lawsuits can have a coercive effect. Clamoring PC food fascists can intimidate your favorite restaurant into removing your favorite dish from its menu.

This food fascism is a direct assault on our freedom of choice over our own diets. If an individual wants to take the health risk of what he may see as a vastly more palatable diet, he should be free to make that choice. It’s his body and his life.

The food fascists argue that the bad health consequences will then be borne by the taxpayers in part through Medicaid and other public assistance programs. They think that gives them the right to regulate such intimate details of our lives as what we eat at our daily meals. But I think that is a good reason to revisit the design and structure of those programs, not restrict my personal freedom.

Such heavy-handed government control is particularly foolish here because the health impact of any particular meal depends on so many other factors. Some people can eat a lot more of the disfavored foods than others without gaining weight. Those who exercise more can indulge more without adverse health effects.

A new study from the University of North Carolina shows that today’s fatter kids are not eating more than 20 years ago, they’re just exercising less. Yet, only one state today, Illinois, still mandates physical education for kindergarten through 12th grade, even though studies show regular physical activity improves academic performance.

The health impact of any meal also depends on what else you eat. Wine, fish and olive oil can offset the impact of other “naughty” foods. Or you may just want to save up eating Brussels sprouts and pine nuts all week so you can indulge in a big steak dinner on Saturday night. That should be your choice.

Then there is the question of whether the experts really know what they are talking about. I once lost 30 pounds in about 3 months with a low-fat, high-carb diet and lots of exercise. But years later I lost the same weight in the same time on a high-fat, low-carb diet with no exercise. True controversy rages over many nutrition and health issues and those who insist they have the ultimate wisdom are usually just ignoring their critics.

And even if the experts were sure, is government policy going to be based solely on the objective science? Or will it be based on the influence of local and national special interests?

Dictating our personal diets is not a proper role for government. Programs to spread knowledge and the best understanding of the experts are fine. But the final choice belongs to each one of us, not some mad, self-appointed, food fascist in his laboratory.

Peter Ferrara is director of the International Center for Law and Economics.

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