- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2012

A freshman Republican congressman from Tennessee is fighting back against anti-obesity ad campaigns initiated by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats that target sugary soft drinks and other high-calorie foods.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a physician, is arguing that, in the middle of difficult economic times, it’s absurd for the federal government to spend billions demonizing certain foods and trying to affect people’s personal dietary choices.

“At a time when our nation faces high unemployment, it makes absolutely no sense that federal and city agencies would aggressively advertise against American products made by American workers,” Mr. DesJarlais said.

The president’s 2009 stimulus bill included $230 million for community-level anti-obesity campaigns, known as “Communities Putting Prevention to Work,” which sent grant money to 31 states for advertising that often attacked the nutritional value of fast food and sodas. Under President Obama’s health care overhaul, the program was made permanent, fully authorized and with target funding of $15 billion over 10 years.

Mr. DesJarlais, who sits on the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, is pushing a bill that would prohibit the use of federal money for advertising campaigns against any food or beverage that is deemed safe and lawful by the federal government.

“Our top priority should be restarting the economy and creating jobs — not funding scare campaigns against perfectly safe and legal products,” he said in a statement.

He added, “As a physician, I believe in promoting and encouraging healthy lifestyles, but the American taxpayer should not be forced to subsidize campaigns that push misleading information intended to scare consumers,” he concluded.

In the past week, the anti-obesity campaign came under fire in New York City for a particularly alarmist ad showing an overweight man on a stool, his right leg missing below the knee. The ad, which was placed throughout the city’s subway system, warned that supersized portions of sodas could cause diabetes, which in turn, could lead to amputations.

The ad stirred a backlash and not just for its claim of linking ever-increasing portions of soda to diabetes. The photo of the man in the ad had been digitally altered, and the model who posed for the picture still has both his legs and does not have diabetes.

The New York Health Department tried to counter the criticism with a grim set of statistics: Nearly 3,000 New Yorkers with diabetes were hospitalized for amputations in 2006. The city officials said that many of the blunt new ads used real people with real medical issues, but that finding suitable models for the ads was not always possible.

• Susan Crabtree can be reached at scrabtree@washingtontimes.com.

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