Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Down through the years, I’ve attempted to warn my fellow Americans about the tyrannical precedent and template for further tyranny set by anti-tobacco zealots. The point of this column is not to rekindle the smoking debate. That train has left the station. Instead, let’s examine the template.

In the early stages of the anti-tobacco campaign, there were calls for “reasonable” measures such as nonsmoking sections on airplanes and health warnings on cigarette packs. In the 1970s, no one would have ever believed such measures would have evolved into today’s level of attack on smokers, which includes confiscatory cigarette taxes and bans on outdoor smoking.

The door was opened, and the zealots took over. Much of the attack was justified by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) secondhand smoke study using statistical techniques, that if used by an academic researcher would lead to condemnation if not expulsion. Let’s say you support the attack on smokers. Are you ready for the next round of tyranny using tactics so successful for the anti-tobacco zealots?

According to a June 2 Associated Press report, “Those heaping portions at restaurants — and doggie bags for the leftovers — may be a thing of the past, if health officials get their way.” The story pertains to a report, funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) titled, “Keystone Forum on Away-From-Home Foods: Opportunities for Preventing Weight Gain and Obesity.”

The FDA says the report could help the American restaurant industry and consumers take important steps to successfully combat the nation’s obesity problem. Among the report’s recommendations for restaurants are: list calorie-content on menus, serve smaller portions and add more fruits and vegetables and nuts. Both the Health and Human Services Department and the FDA accept the report’s findings.

Right now, the FDA has no authority to require restaurant labeling of the number of calories, set portion sizes on menus or prohibit allowing customers from taking home a doggie bag. That’s for now, but recall that cigarette warning labels were the anti-tobacco zealots’ first steps. There are zealots like the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest who have long attacked Chinese and Mexican restaurants for serving customers too much food. They also say, “Caffeine is the only drug that is widely added to the food supply.” They’ve called for caffeine warning labels, and they don’t stop there. The center’s director said, “We could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses and meat.” Visions of higher taxes are music to politicians’ ears.

How many Americans would like to go to a restaurant and have the waiter tell you, based on calories, what you might have for dinner? How would you like the waiter to tell you, “According to government regulations, we cannot give you a doggie bag”? What about a Burger King cashier refusing to sell french fries to overweight people? You say, “Williams, that’s preposterous. It would never come to that.”

I’m betting that would have been the same response during the 1970s had someone said the day would come when cities, such as Calabasas, Calif., and Friendship Heights, Md., would write ordinances banning outdoor smoking. Tyrants always start out with small measures that appear reasonable. Revealing their complete agenda from the start would encounter too much resistance.

Diet decisions people make are no one else’s business. Yes, there are untoward health outcomes from unwise dietary habits. And because of socialism, taxpayers pick up the bill. But if untoward health outcomes of choices are to be our guide for government intervention, we’re calling for government intervention in virtually every aspect of our lives. Eight hours’ sleep, regular exercise and moderate alcohol consumption are important for good health. Should government regulate those decisions?

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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