You thought it was ridiculous when Twinkie-tax godfather Kelly Brownell and waistline scaremonger David Ludwig likened obesity to an infectious disease outbreak, writing: “The obesity epidemic threatens the foundations of our society as would a massive SARS outbreak.” Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is taking this kind of rhetoric to the next level. For the first time ever, the agency is using its “disease detectives” to study obesity. CDC’s Donna Stroup — coauthor of the study which terrified the country by falsely claiming overweight and obesity kills 400,000 Americans each year — said: “This is a team of public health professionals from CDC that are dispatched for West Nile virus and for meningitis.”

On the same day that the CDC held a press conference trying to redouble its efforts to scare us about obesity, the Institute of Medicine released a report recommending that public health officials “portray lifestyle-related risks as a public health concern rather than an individual problem.” Likening obesity to a deadly, contagious disease would seem to fit the bill.

The CDC was originally started to control the outbreak of malaria, moving on to focus on small pox and polio. Traditionally, its disease outbreak teams search for the source of the problem — say, a well of tainted water. In West Virginia, however, the agency has taken to descending on work places, schools, grocery stores, and restaurants and quizzing people about their weight. Call us crazy, but that doesn’t seem like a very effective way to “discover” the source of obesity. The CDC needs to reacquaint itself with the concept of personal responsibility.

Some scientists have raised their eyebrows at the idea of studying people’s decisions about whether or not to eat ice cream and take long walks as if they had meningitis. New York Times reporter Gina Kolata noted last week that Florida State University professor of statistics Daniel McGee, who has analyzed obesity statistics, “burst out laughing when he heard about” the CDC’s effort, saying: “My God, what a strange thing to do.” He added that when CDC’s investigators get to West Virginia, “They’ll find out what we all know — that the country is no longer set up for physical exercise.” And as some look to blame restaurants or schools, McGee pointed out, “I’m sure skinny people go to those same restaurants … Skinny kids go to those same schools.”