“Greetings, fat people,” writes Jack Gordon in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It cannot have escaped your notice that you lately have been reclassified as not merely unsightly but an actual public health hazard and a menace to society.” The chunky among us, he continues, are now being blamed for “oppressing the innocent and the svelte by exerting upward pressure on their health-insurance premiums.” And America’s public health activists “intend to put a stop to you.”
How did we get here? Part of the answer can be found in Princeton, New Jersey, where the biggest health cop in the world, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), is headquartered. As we’ve told you before, RWJF is applying its anti-alcohol model to burgers, fries, and apple pie — even proclaiming that our love-handles are “forcing what may be a cultural revolution” in which “ideas to cut obesity that once sounded extreme are gaining public attention and moving into mainstream thinking.”
Thus far, RWJF’s biggest contribution to this “cultural revolution” has been two studies it funded, published last year in the journal Health Affairs. Not surprisingly, RWJF lavished Health Affairs with nearly $2 million in 2002.
The first of these RWJF-funded studies, conducted by Rand Corporation researcher Roland Sturm, concluded — through a tortured mess of statistical mumbo-jumbo — that obesity is more expensive for our healthcare system than either alcohol dependence or tobacco. It’s this kind of agenda-driven “research” that groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) seize on to justify “solutions” like fat taxes and lawsuits against food companies. And as The Washington Post made clear in 2002, Sturm shares CSPI’s agenda:
“Achieving lasting health behavioral change is difficult and rarely achieved by exhorting individuals to exercise more, eat healthier foods,” writes Sturm. It takes changes in the environment to discourage overeating, he says. The narrow focus on diets “is not going to work,” he says. “This is doomed to fail.” He points to the tobacco analogy. Smoking rates have dropped not because the surgeon general exhorted individuals not to smoke, but because of higher taxes on cigarettes, the establishment of smoke-free buildings and work sites, limits on tobacco advertising, the isolation of smokers in restaurants and other public places, a broad public education campaign on smoking hazards and, finally, a legal attack on tobacco companies.
The second RWJF-funded study came out of a $36,801 grant it gave Brown University professor James Morone to analyze “the promises and pitfalls of government action, the varied roles of different political institutions, the coalitions of interest groups around obesity.” Shortly thereafter, Health Affairs published Morone’s article, “The politics of obesity: Seven steps to government action.”
Morone begins by disparaging the “myths about individualism and self-reliance” in America:
[D]espite the enduring myths about American self-reliance, the U.S. government has a long tradition of intervening in what seems to be purely private behavior. From alcohol restrictions in the early Republic to the tobacco wars of recent years, personal behavior has regularly become subject to governmental intervention, regulation, and prohibition.
Three of Morone’s “seven steps” deserve special attention. Regarding the concept of the “demon industry,” he argues that “a growing literature slams fast foods, junk foods, and soft drinks”:
With this trigger in cultural play, obesity begins to shift from being a private health matter to being a political issue. Scientific findings never carry the same political weight as does a villain threatening American youth. If critics successfully cast portions of the industry in this way, far-reaching political interventions are possible, even likely. When an industry becomes demonized, plausible counterarguments (privacy, civil liberties, property rights, and the observation that “everyone does it”) begin to totter. [emphasis added]
Discussing the “mass movement” step, Morone quotes a New Republic profile of Twinkie-tax pioneer Kelly Brownell: “Brownell is not out leading a mass movement on the streets of New Haven and has no plans to do so.” And Morone recognizes that “demonization generally precedes mobilization: The politics of the preceding trigger will affect the prospects for this one. If super-sizing a soft drink and fries begins to seem as dangerous as lighting up a cigarette, a movement may very well spring up.” As it happens, Brownell predicted just such a mass movement last week.
Finally, describing the “self help” step, Morone writes: “Reformers frustrated by offenders’ resistance to their message of uplift and self-improvement urge government sanctions.” Here’s where we get back to Jack Gordon and his hilarious column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The mindset that Gordon mocks perfectly reflects the RWJF-funded studies of Sturm and Morone:
[E]ven if you were perfectly aware that overeating is unhealthy, you kind of figured you had a right to go to hell in your own way, yes? Well, those days are over. You have drawn the losing ticket in the victimological sweepstakes.
Once the merchants of death have been properly chastised and the lawyers have cashed in, however, the Legions of Light and Splendor will turn their censorious gaze upon you. Personally. They will not long be satisfied merely to scold you for biggie-sizing the No. 3 Value Meal. Instead they will hunt for an excuse that entitles them, in the name of plain self-defense, to slap that double cheeseburger right out of your jaws. And they will find one … The scolding phase is still underway, but the real war against the obesity epidemic is about to begin.