Government Anti-Obesity Efforts Achieve Little Success

Published April 1, 2006

Swimsuit season is upon us, and millions of Americans are once again fighting the Battle of the Bulge. But can big government help us fit into new bikinis or Speedos? They’re trying, with anti-obesity efforts increasing at all levels of government.

States are increasingly using obesity as an excuse to feed at the taxpayer trough. California (SB 564), New York (AB 5665), and Washington (SB 5973) are currently considering bills, carried over from last year, that would impose excise taxes on junk food or soft drinks, and three other states attempted and failed to impose such “fat taxes” last session. Thirteen states urged the creation or funding of obesity prevention programs, and eight established new task forces, legislative committees, or government-sponsored obesity studies.

“Legislators should think twice about enlisting big government’s help in fighting the War on Fat,” said Lori Roman, executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council. “So-called ‘solutions’ like fat taxes are surely aimed more at raising revenue than at helping people live healthier lives.”

Claiming Best Intentions

Like other politicized public health initiatives, last year’s obesity legislation adopted a “for your own good” mantra set on protecting people from themselves. The California legislature is currently considering two carryover resolutions (ACR 77, SCR 62) that elevate the importance of government recreation and park agencies in fighting obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

Four similar bills in other states failed to reach a floor vote by session’s end: Hawaii’s SCR 94 and Massachusetts’ HB 2087 introduced resolutions urging citizens to start walking and biking; Arkansas’ HB 1416 pushed for tax-free gym memberships; and New Jersey’s AB 3441 urged a tax deduction for bicycle commuters. Hawaii’s failed HCR 145 advocated establishing a public database with obesity information about teachers in the state because, according to the resolution, “everyone’s efforts should contribute to the deterrence of obesity in children.”

The New Mexico legislature–which last year passed SJM 2, a measure to improve the eating habits of children–apparently couldn’t live by its own rules when it failed to pass HM 50, which would have banned junk food from the capitol building. According to the bill, House members charged with “first-time possession of an unhealthy snack item” would have been fined $100 and required to perform community service informing children about the evils of junk food. Repeat offenders would have been required to participate in a junk food rehabilitation program and then be placed on a “junk food offender registration list” for life.

“The key to [fighting] obesity is personal responsibility, not government legislation,” said New Mexico state Sen. Steve Komadina (R-Corrales), who last year sponsored the “Right to Eat Enchiladas Act,” which would have banned lawsuits against food purveyors arising from obesity claims. “Government regulation didn’t work for Prohibition, and why we think it will work for other things we consume is beyond me,” Komadina said.

The Georgia legislature sent mixed messages during last year’s session, when it both recognized “National Eating Disorders Awareness Week” (HR 253), which concerns “body image” problems such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, and introduced HB 497, which would have required schools to put children’s body mass index (BMI) on their report cards.

Politicizing Public Health

What is driving the legislative hysteria over double chins and love handles is certainly not sound science. In an examination of the CDC’s much-publicized 2004 study claiming obesity kills 400,000 Americans every year and that obesity might pass smoking as the leading cause of preventable death, CDC internal investigators warned in late 2005 that the agency might have been hyping the obesity problem to achieve a bigger piece of the taxpayer pie.

“Another contributor to the high level of concern expressed [about the 2004 study] may have been the fear that certain public health programs were going to be devalued relative to other programs,” said CDC Internal Investigator James Mercy in Full Report of the Internal Review of Actual Causes of Death 2000, released November 30, 2005. “This is a cautionary experience to any group that attempts to prioritize among diverse public health activities based on imperfect or incomplete science.”

Nanny-state politicians have attempted to justify their inteventions by citing obesity treatment costs shouldered by taxpayers. After all, they argue, won’t the burrito you eat today show up on my tax bill or in my health insurance premium tomorrow?

Colorado–which last year adopted HB 1066, an obesity treatment program for Medicaid patients–certainly thinks so. Nine other states attempted to mandate insurance or Medicaid offerings of weight loss surgery and other obesity treatments. All failed.

Testing Market-Based Solutions

Opponents of these measures argue the mere existence of obesity-related, collective health care costs doesn’t mean eating and exercise should fall under the government’s purview.

“Third-party payers of medical bills, whether public or private, often collectivize health care and allow some individuals to impose their bad health decisions on the rest of us,” said Roman.

“An effective battle against obesity should be fought with personal responsibility in health care, not by government decree,” said Indiana state Rep. David Frizzell (R-Indianapolis), one of 31 Indiana legislators to vote against SB 111, which if signed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) would limit the amount of junk food and sodas in school vending machines.

Some state legislatures are moving in the direction of personal responsibility–expanding health savings accounts, for example, which allow consumers to self-fund health care expenses and exercise more control over health care decision-making. Five states–Arkansas, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania–last year passed legislation making HSA contributions tax-free at the state level, and both Florida and Oklahoma have made HSAs an insurance option for state and municipal employees.

Christie Raniszewski Herrera ([email protected]) is director of the Health and Human Services Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council.