Reason Enough To Roast Food Cops

“Surely it would be legitimate to point out that an anti-tobacco activist was a chain smoker, that an opponent of legalized gambling liked to play the slots, or that an anti-porn crusader was fond of dirty movies,” writes Jacob Sullum in this month’s issue of Reason magazine. “So when a leader of the burgeoning war on fat, a Twinkie tax advocate who never tires of comparing Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel, turns up sporting an extra chin and an ample gut, noting those facts should not be considered out of bounds.” Of course, Sullum refers to the hypocrisy of Kelly “Big Brother” Brownell, who won’t put his personal responsibility where his mouth is. In a lengthy and instructive article, Sullum works his way through the ranks of top food cops, challenging their absurd notions and exposing their radical goals.

According to the food police, you’re simply too dumb to make your own food choices. Sullum notes that that’s where big government steps in:

The war on fat is the latest manifestation of a collectivist philosophy that says the government has a duty to protect “public health” by discouraging behavior that might lead to disease or injury. It also reflects an anti-capitalist perspective that views people as helpless automatons manipulated into consuming whatever big corporations choose to produce …

Presumably they’re not talking about the Jolly Green Giant, since he hawks the vegetables that Brownell wants to subsidize. But the food giant certainly seems friendly, offering consumers a cornucopia of food choices at low prices. You could easily be fooled by the giant’s benign appearance if, like most Americans, you’ve been tricked into believing that choice and value are good.

While consumers relish a wide variety of foods, nutrition Puritans like Marion Nestle are unhappy that we are beset by this bounty:

For Nestle, the huge number of food products on the market is prima facie evidence of the industry’s callous disregard for “the public health.” Brownell emphasizes that variety encourages overindulgence.

Nutrition nags hold a special disdain for the low cost of foods they don’t like. Nestle, for example, thinks food is “too cheap.” Hence their support for the “fat tax,” to make foods they don’t approve of less affordable. Sullum explains this warped view:

[F]ood sellers who give customers extra value for their money clearly are up to no good. “Americans are constantly induced to spend a little more money to get a lot more food,” lamented Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Just to be clear: CSPI is saying that bargains are bad, that there is something sinister about volume discounts and package deals. McDonald’s is practically giving away tasty meals to eager customers, and we should all be deeply troubled by that fact.

Of course, Sullum takes aim at trial shark John Banzhaf, “a longtime proponent of suing our way to a better society who treats the epithet ‘legal terrorist’ as a compliment.” He writes further:

In the 1960s this self-identified “Nader of the cigarette industry” used the fairness doctrine (which Brownell wants to revive as a weapon against Big Food) to demand that broadcasters who carried cigarette commercials also provide time for anti-smoking spots, a legal strategy that ultimately led to the demise of tobacco ads on TV and radio. Like other anti-smoking activists, Banzhaf initially resisted the analogy between tobacco and food, telling the Washington Times in 1997: “I’ve heard it since 1969, when they said if we applied the fairness doctrine to cigarette commercials, there’d be anti-automobile ads and anti-McDonald’s ads. But it never happened.”

Of course, ridiculous things can happen when sharks like Banzhaf team up with calorie killjoys, which is why Sullum warns:

Before you dismiss this agenda as the pie-in-the-sky wish list of wannabe social engineers, consider the trajectory of the Twinkie tax, which has gone from reductio ad absurdum to serious policy proposal in just a few years.

Food cops aren’t just after taxes and lawsuits. There’s also the constant push for marketing restrictions. Sullum notes that while children are used as the justification for imposing harsh marketing restrictions, the consequences would affect all consumers:

But anti-fat activists are using concern about obese kids to justify policies that treat adults like children — as any attempt to eliminate ads that reach minors inevitably would.

That doesn’t bother food cops, who won’t stop with controlling what children see on television. They want to have power over what adults see, read, purchase, and consume. And, Sullum argues, food cops will grab that power inch-by-inch, while arguing obesity is a “public health” problem in need of big government solutions:

More important, the argument based on taxpayer-funded health insurance proves too much. It gives the government an open-ended license to tax, regulate, or ban any behavior that might lead to disease or injury. In Food Politics, Marion Nestle declares that “obesity contributes to increased health care costs, thereby becoming an issue for everyone, overweight or not.” When I ask her how far she would take this principle, she says that depends largely on how social norms evolve. “The government deals with all kinds of risky behavior: smoking, seat belts, alcohol — all of those,” she says. “I think it’s a case-by-case situation.” But if, as Nestle insists, “diet is a political issue,” what isn’t? The same logic suggests the government should take an interest in how much sleep you get, what kind of sex you have, and whether you floss regularly.

With all of their faults, and questionable motives, Sullum notes food cops have yet another fault to answer for — they are blind to the harm their actions will cause American consumers:

They seem oblivious to the totalitarian implications of such a broadly understood “public health” agenda, which makes even the most personal choices subject to group control. … They call their goal a “Braver New World,” apparently without recognizing the chilling connotations of that phrase.

Click here to read the full article in Reason.

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