Obesity: Individual Problem Demands Individual Responsibility

Center for Consumer Freedom Executive Director Rick Berman joined Twinkie-taxer Kelly Brownell on a panel yesterday to discuss “remedies” for America’s “obesity epidemic.” Brownell began by saying that his presentation was a “very superficial analysis” and complaining that ConsumerFreedom.com calls him nasty names. Berman countered by saying CCF “affectionately” refers to people like Brownell and Center for Science in the Public Interest president Michael Jacobson as the food police. Good times were had by all.

Except perhaps by Jacobson, who — sad for him — didn’t touch the delicious chocolate-chip cookies provided by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), host of a day-long conference on obesity.

Berman offered, as one obesity solution, an excise tax on extra-large pants. He was kidding, of course, but it seems that legislators in New York haven’t gotten the joke. A bill there proposes to “tax junk food, video games and television ads and to use the revenue for obesity prevention.” Luckily, the British Medical Association has already voted down yesterday’s proposal to slap a 17.5 percent tax on foods high in fat, sugar, and sodium.

All joking aside, there’s an important difference between taxing extra-large pants and taxing butter and video games. The first is a targeted approach: it focuses on people who are most likely overweight. Fat taxes, advertising restrictions, and all the other food-nanny proposals we tell you about, meanwhile, unfairly punish everyone for the excesses of a relative few.

The AEI conference’s opening speaker, University of Chicago Law School Professor Richard Epstein, had his own proposal that focuses on obese people. He suggested that employers, schools, insurers, and so forth be allowed to “viciously discriminate against any person who is obese.” According to commentator Ron Bailey:

He was joking about the “vicious” part, but his point is serious … [T]his policy would impose the costs for being overweight on individuals, giving them stronger incentives to slim down. (I know from personal experience that such policies work. For example, I decided to quit smoking shortly after I got turned down for a job because I was a smoker.)

As it is currently interpreted, Epstein’s proposal would probably run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws. But minor adjustments could be made to the ADA, in order to prevent the government from continuing its role as an enabler of obesity.

In his column today, commentator Walter Williams offered another proposal to target the obese individual:

[T]here might be a call for laws similar to what’s called the Dram Shop Act in some states, which prohibits the sale of alcohol to intoxicated persons. Applied to food, that law might ban the sale of hamburgers and fries to a fat person, or a mandate that scales be placed in front of cash registers where a customer is weighed prior to a sale.

CCF’s Richard Berman offered up the same bit of clever sarcasm yesterday. The point behind these outrageous ideas — refusing to serve fat people a second round of cheesecake, or taxing extra-large pants — is that it’s even more ridiculous to tax the slender purely because some Americans are too plump. Eating habits, exercise regimen, and genetic background are all highly individualized. We need individual solutions for individual problems. And the best individual solution is personal responsibility.

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