Every day on Planet Earth, 25,000 people die of starvation. Given this startling reality, one might be forgiven for wondering why the most controversial issue on the agenda of last week’s World Health Organization meeting was the size of our love handles. Yet the venerable global health body practically begged for this fight. WHO’s anti-obesity strategy includes a call for “fat taxes” on hot dogs, candy, and the like. The Bush Administration won the right to amend WHO’s plan after charging that it neglects “the notion of personal responsibility.” Predictably, defenders of the fat tax cried foul.
Most notably, the self-described “food police” at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) accused the Administration of “sabotage.” They consulted on WHO’s plan, and the fat tax is the crown jewel of their anti-obesity policy. “We could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses, [and] meat,” says CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.
CSPI’s food scolds didn’t respond to the Administration’s “personal responsibility” charge — and for good reason. They genuinely don’t believe average people are capable of making their own food decisions. CSPI’s Margo Wootan recently declared: “We have got to move beyond personal responsibility.” Twinkie-tax inventor (and CSPI scientific advisory board member) Kelly “Big Brother” Brownell also wants to “get away from these arguments about personal responsibility.”
The idea of a fat tax enjoys growing support in public health circles, but it remains wildly unpopular with the American people. One recent poll gave it an eight percent approval rating, which puts its popularity somewhere between a root canal and Dennis Kucinich. Naturally, fat-tax advocates took their crusade to the World Health Organization in hopes of sidestepping the American voter.
WHO readily obliged, coming down squarely on the side of the calorie-counting zealots at CSPI. The “war on fat” plan considered in Geneva lauds “preventative strategies,” which is public-health-speak for laws that prevent everyone — fat and skinny alike — from having access to foods they enjoy. In addition to fat taxes, fashionable “preventative” policies include a minimum purchase age for designated foods, zoning restrictions on certain restaurants, and even stocking some snack foods out of customers’ reach (behind the retail counter, right next to cigarettes and pornography) . Essentially, the global public-health movement would like to make buying nacho chips as inconvenient and expensive as possible.
Kelly Brownell crystallized this thinking in testimony before the U.S. Senate, comparing the eating habits of human beings to those of caged animals. Both will eat poorly, Brownell argued, if given access to unhealthy foods. Therefore, like animals, we must be poked and prodded (or taxed and regulated) so that we can no longer access what isn’t good for us.
So much for the simple proposition that individuals should govern their own diets. No wonder the President thinks personal responsibility is under attack.
For CSPI and other like-minded advocates of government control, the thousands of readily available and inexpensive food offerings we enjoy are something to lament. “People tend to eat most healthily during hard times,” argues Jacobson. “Heart disease plummeted in Holland and Denmark during the most severe food shortages of World War II. Records of English manors in the 1600s reveal that the peasantry feasted on perhaps a pound of bread, a spud, and a couple of carrots per day.” And that, to Jacobson is “basically a wonderfully healthy diet.”
Food critic Robert Shoffner argues that CSPI’s nutritional puritans “want us in a state of perpetual Lent.” This dictate apparently applies even to those without enough to eat in the first place. As we’ve pointed out before, CSPI complained to WHO about increases of fat and sugar consumption in China, India, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa since 1961. Given the history of mass starvation in these regions, anyone but the most single-minded anti-obesity zealots would see increased caloric intake of any kind as cause for celebration.
At the 2002 World Health Summit, WHO’s then Director-General declared: “Food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition dominate the health of the world’s poorest nations.” Under such conditions, only an hysterical fear of calories could lead the global food police to tax food — any food — out of people’s reach.