Just in time for the Labor Day weekend’s picnics and beach parties, the U.S. government has informed millions of formerly healthy Americans that they are fatties. Its edict on obesity moved 30 million unsuspecting Americans into Lardville. It also succeeded in declaring wartime veterans who smoked government-issued cigarettes suddenly guilty of “willful misconduct,” putting them in danger of losing health benefits.

The most famous purveyor of hamburgers is now a merchant of death. “To me, there is no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel,” says Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell. The Nation magazine, generally known for its libertine spirit, has taken after the “soda barons” and “Caffeine, Inc.” Why? “Children can become dependent on caffeine,” the magazine warns.

Those who have wondered what the health enforcers would target after tobacco now have at least a partial answer: high-calorie food and caffeine. Those of us in the hospitality industry have obvious reasons for concern.

There is no doubting the coercive nature of this crusade. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports that low-fat activists “hope to bypass the excruciatingly arduous and long path that anti tobacco advocates had to travel before warnings about the hazards of smoking took hold.”

The new wars on caffeine and fat are mirror images of the anti-tobacco crusade, which serves as their guide. Both are brimming with hysteria. “Diet and lack of exercise kill as many people as tobacco,” warns Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The American Heart Association warns that obesity is now an “epidemic.” These dangerous substances are pushed by greedy industries. Their main victims are children.

A cover story in The Nation on April 27 fired every round in the activist arsenal. “Scientific research has linked caffeine to anxiety, respiratory ailments, possible bone loss and other health worries,” the story warned. This dangerous threat is being pushed by “Caffeine Inc.,” which is made up of “soda barons,” “major caffeine suppliers,” and “soda conglomerates.” Their victims, of course, are innocent children, lured into caffeine “addiction” as they watch Saturday morning cartoons.

You have to be a real dope not to understand where this is heading. Starbucks spokeswoman Cheri Libby, fully awake and smelling the zeitgeist, told The New York Times, “As a company we don’t market to teens. We have a lot of different types of profiles of people who drink coffee. But we don’t even track that segment.” You can almost hear her teeth chattering.

Ms. Libby is right to fear lawsuits, as is anyone who has anything to do with manufacturing or distributing caffeine or high-fat foods. The Center for Science in the Public Interest contends restaurants should “bear responsibility for obesity due to large portion sizes” – just like taverns who serve their patrons one too many martinis.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, provided a sneak preview of what is shaping up to be the plaintiff bar’s line of attack. “McDonald’s and every other fast food producer in America conspire against me,” he told his colleagues last month. “They fill up the television with ads that attract me to go and eat. They do studies to try to determine my weakness. Am I not victimized by McDonald’s and Burger King? And, if I am victimized, are they not liable?”

Sen. Gramm also raised the big question that Americans should now ponder: “Where does this end? If we don’t hold people accountable for decisions they make, does it end with tobacco? Does it end with alcohol? Does it end with fattening foods?”

I have no answer to that question, other than to say that when personal responsibility becomes passe, public disorder is bound to follow. And clearly, a society that treats coffee and hamburgers with the disdain once reserved for heroin and pornography is in serious disorder.

Before the reformers are done, many of us will pine for the days when we merely defined deviancy down.

— Tim Gannon is executive vice president of Outback Steakhouses, Inc.