- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The obesity scare needed to take off a few pounds, and sure enough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obliged, weighing in with the Thanksgiving week admission that, er, um, it had slightly overestimated the number of deaths caused by overeating. The Wall Street Journal tossed in an additional bonbon: Scientists — as witness an unpublished study by the CDC and the National Cancer Institute — don’t have a grip on all questions pertaining to the relationship between weight and health.

Previously, the CDC had given us to understand that in 2000 some 400,000 Americans had perished from overeating — nearly as many as died from our big national bugaboo, smoking. It turns out that mathematical errors padded the death toll. The CDC isn’t sure what the actual number was. Nor, given that unpublished study, is it plain we’ll learn much from the updated figures, except maybe that, as the Journal notes, deaths by fork may be closer, numerically, to deaths by beer bottle than to bucket-kicks due to puffing.

It’s indeed a transitory life, as the Book of Common Prayer affirms, with plenty of exit doors. Maybe the partial moral of the story is this: Don’t panic, and don’t give the trial lawyers any added incentive to sue somebody.

The mission of the Centers for Disease Control — namely, to control disease — is a lofty and useful one. But in appraising that mission, we have to factor in the tendency of the nannies among us to start hectoring everyone else as to how to live.

The nannies aren’t always wrong instinctually or analytically. Speed does kill. Likewise tobacco. Nonetheless, the nannies generally end up over-regulating. These days, it’s not enough to place reasonable conditions on where one may smoke. The idea, driven by lawyers who made their money kicking the tobacco companies in the ash, is to render smoking as furtive a pastime as reading pornography or voting Republican in Georgia used to be. The idea of outlawing tobacco in restaurants and bars is so brainless it wouldn’t deserve comment if city councils controlled by the nanny lobby hadn’t begun outlawing tobacco in restaurants and bars.

Lately, the obesity scare has been growing darker, with lawsuits against McDonald’s and worries growing over the girth of young people. A federal judge last year tossed out the McDonald’s suit — brought by two generously proportioned Bronx teens who found it impossible to bypass the Golden Arches on the way to purchase yogurt. Thus, the tobacco suits began — with juries rejecting the notion that smokers shouldn’t take some responsibility for their own actions. Lawyerly persistence paid off in time. Jurors came to accept that tobacco companies had exploited human weakness for selfish gain. You can imagine the same thing happening with high-calorie food, given our twin passions for suing and nannying, often enough at the same time.

No one would suggest you can’t overdo the pleasures of the table — an ancient failing — just as you can overdo anything, including the temptation to blame your problems on someone else. And yet, as the CDC now acknowledges, we can’t accurately quantify the, um, shape of the problem. What do we do? How do we act?

A new book by Mary Eberstadt — “Home-Alone America” — blames absentee parents for (among much else) the upsurge of obesity among kids. Who’s overseeing the kids’ feeding patterns? she demands to know. Certainly not moms and dads more interested in power than in parenting.

What, then, does society do to address such a point — commission more CDC studies and sue absentee parents for breach of obligation? I suppose we could. A likelier remedy might be to renew somehow as a culture our faded sense of responsibility for the lives of loved ones. Nannies, we need to remember, in aprons or pinstripes, are parent substitutes. What if, after a long layoff, our culture just told — and showed — the substitutes their services no longer were needed?

Hard to tell, but things sure would look different.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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