Eat French Fries, Go to Jail

Published August 1, 2006

In a culture where political correctness runs amok, sometimes it seems like the only people it’s still OK to discriminate against are the obese.

Just look at all the legislation that’s being introduced: Congress is seriously considering passing a federal law banning the sale of fatty snacks and beverages on school campuses. This spring, Maryland came close to passing a law that would require schools to report students’ body mass indexes to their parents along with their grades in science and math, in the name of helping stem childhood obesity. And in late June, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono (R-CA) and Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) introduced companion bills to provide funding grants for community-level health and nutrition training programs.

“If we can educate and stimulate our society to deal with this issue, especially our youth, and encourage them to live a healthier life, we’ve won the first battle in the war against obesity,” Bono told her hometown newspaper, the Palm Springs Desert Sun, on June 28.

While the intention is laudable, since childhood obesity is a reliable indicator of future health problems, one has to wonder: Is it really possible to legislate individual health that way? Like morality, it seems to be a Sisyphean task, and an instance in which government is overstepping its bounds.

Pursuing Adults Too

And fat kids aren’t the only ones getting a bad rap these days.

Public health officials have long had the authority to monitor and sometimes even confine people with infectious diseases such as plague, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Such measures have been effective in reducing and even eliminating the occurrence of such diseases. But this spring, science correspondent Ronald Bailey noted in the March 17 edition of Reason magazine that public health officials now want to control “lifestyle diseases.”

The New York City Health Department is leading the charge by requiring medical laboratories to report to the department the results of tests for blood sugar levels for all diabetics in the city. People with high blood sugar levels will be identified by the department and will be contacted and urged to take their medication, visit their physicians more frequently, and modify their diets.

If they don’t, New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Friedan told Reason, “modifications of the physical environment to promote physical activity, or of the food environment to address obesity, are essential for chronic disease prevention and control.” Such measures are rationalized by public health officials as means of reducing public health expenditures.

Broadening Net Further

The incidence of diabetes is increasing, Bailey notes in his article. But, he continues, “At its most draconian, one can imagine that local public health officials might impose a severe tax or even outlaw foods that they believe contribute to the diabetes ‘epidemic.’ No more Twinkies or French fries.” He believes other alleged lifestyle-choice diseases, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, could eventually be monitored in similar fashion by public health officials.

Lawrence O. Gostin, who directs the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University, told The Washington Post on January 11 he has concerns about government intervention in the lives of those with noninfectious diseases. “Should the government be collecting this kind of information? Should it be intervening like this?” he asked the Post. “You can imagine it getting to the point where you have a public health worker showing up at your door and asking, ‘Did you remember to exercise, eat right and take your medication today?'”

Wendy K. Mariner of Boston University’s schools of public health and law can envision even more government invasion into personal lives. “Government concern often shifts to government coercion,” she said in the Post article. “Today we’re telling people what you should do voluntarily. Tomorrow it may be we’re telling you what to do or you’ll be penalized.”

Maureen Martin ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s senior fellow for legal affairs.

For more information …

“Is Diabetes a Plague? Eroding the distinction between public and private health,” by Ronald Bailey, Reason, March 17, 2006,