Tuesday, September 21, 2004

COLUMN -- Government obesity is preventable

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:59 PM |  

Pioneer Press
Aug. 18, 2004

The super-size government folks are taking yet another bite of individual responsibility, this time gnawing accountability for personal health away from individual Minnesotans and force-feeding it whole to the public. Serving up obesity as a "public health" entrée, garnishing the Health Department with an "obesity prevention coordinator" and cooking up a new batch of obesity-prevention programs virtually guarantees weight loss — for taxpayer wallets.

Here's some food for thought — a simmering widespread health concern, like obesity, is not automatically a "public health" problem that will boil over unless government puts a lid on it.

Main course "public health" is government activity that protects citizens from risks to which they have not consented — dangers posed to the community at large, dangers from which individuals cannot realistically protect themselves. The legitimate menu of public health includes ensuring clean air and water, maintaining adequate sanitation and controlling contagious diseases.

And at that, government gets a four-star rating.

Absent from the buffet of fear spread by the "help is on the way" crowd are real killers like tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid fever, measles and smallpox.

Infectious diseases and diseases attributable to poor sanitation and water quality kill millions around the world but are virtually nonexistent in the United States. Such success illustrates the good government does when it follows the constitutional recipe of limited focus.

Unfortunately, having a clean plate is not a virtue at the government trough. "Progressive" government lacks the discipline to push away from the budgetary table as long as there's a smidgen of tax-dollar gravy still to be sopped up. Better yet — mandate gravy as a beverage by relabeling old problems as new "crises."

Thus the limited portion government that produced such spectacular fare as eradicating killer diseases has been supplanted by an "all-you-can-eat" smorgasbord of behavior modifying communications and regulatory programs that equate a Big Mac and a 64-ounce "Bladder Buster" with the Ebola virus.

Obesity is not caused by polluted air, dirty water or inadequate sanitation. It is not contagious. No individual person's obesity reduces any other person's health. Individual health is not public property or public responsibility.

"Ah, but it is," burp they who digest people and poop statistics. Minnesota and Wisconsin spend more than a billion dollars each to treat obesity-related medical conditions. So, they say, it just makes fiscal sense for more government bureaucracy to push citizens in the "right" direction.

But not if you examine the ingredients of that claim.

The meat and potatoes of the fiscal argument is the progressive fallacy that everyone is somehow responsible for everyone else's eating and exercise habits, which in turn promotes the notion that government intervention is the only possible solution.

If I'm told that despite all the 6 a.m. trips to the gym and a refrigerator full of carrot juice, I must pay for the consequences of my couch-potato neighbor's beer and bratwurst breakfasts, then any government intervention in his habits starts to look pretty good.

In that light, a government diet that bans vending machines from schools, implements "fat taxes" on high caloric foods and uses the threat of regulation to coerce "Big Food" into more "acceptable" marketing behavior smells less like tyranny and more like nutritious public policy. And if government is picking up the tab for blood-pressure pills, praise the Lord and pass the onion rings. Who would pass on a free piece of the pie?

Chew on this before swallowing the fiscal argument.

Government's effectiveness in this food fight lays in promoting personal responsibility, not slipping it under the table to the salivating dogs of progressivism.

That means just saying "no" to efforts to make individual health a public health concern. It means enabling, not restricting, insurance companies to reward healthy lifestyles and penalize poor ones. It means moving forward on medical and health savings accounts that give individuals control of their health insurance and health care choices. When it's one's own money being consumed for health care, not the government's, not the employer's and not the neighbor's, one is less likely to drive to the doctor for a Jenny Craig prescription and more likely to eat well and exercise.

Making obesity a public health problem will not render Minnesotans fat free, only less free.