Healthcare reform is at the top of the national agenda, and today the spotlight has turned to obesity. As part of its “Weight of the Nation” conference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is highlighting obesity’s role in health care costs with a new panic-inducing annual estimate: $147 billion. Setting aside the CDC’s tendency to exaggerate obesity statistics, no one would argue against a reduction of obesity-related costs. But the Big Question, of course, is how. As we’re telling reporters, that’s where the CDC is setting healthcare reform enthusiasts up for a major disappointment.
Given CDC Director Thomas Frieden’s background as New York City “health czar,” it’s no surprise that the agency’s new recommendations emphasize government restrictions on the advertising, portioning, and sale of so-called “less healthy” foods and beverages. But as Brookings Institution Vice President Darrell West asks in today’s Politico, “Is changing lifestyles something government is any good at doing?” At a minimum, we should expect “an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence” to justify the aggressive government interventions that Frieden and other public health paternalists are proposing. So far, no good.
As recently as last week, two of Frieden’s former colleagues (David Ludwig and Kelly Brownell), openly admitted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that there is little scientific evidence to back up public policies such as menu labeling – but apparently that’s no reason to hesitate before implementing them:
For some of the most important public health problems today, society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty.
As we’re reminding the media today, Frieden’s record suggests little difference between Ludwig and Brownell’s scientific standards and his own. During his tenure as New York City Public Health Commissioner, Frieden pushed a regulation requiring the city’s restaurants to list calorie information on menus. But documents obtained in a subsequent lawsuit indicate that he attempted to rush publication of a study that the editor of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly medical journal called "problematic” due to its “casual associations.”
Although we recognize the limitations of the analysis, we don’t agree on your critique – but we can agree to disagree.
If dietary interventionists want to base their own lifestyle choices on feelings instead of science, we’re happy to “agree to disagree” too. But public policy is a different story. Congress is laying out the blueprint for a total healthcare makeover, and evidence counts.
No one believes being morbidly obese is healthy. But it’s no coincidence that the CDC released this report in the midst of the healthcare debate. As soon as activists decide a lifestyle choice “costs” taxpayers, our government will target it for regulation.
Which raises an important question: If Frieden and other public health radicals successfully hijack our menus, which “costly” activity will they turn to next? Trampolines, swing sets, subway riding…