What’s next? Social stigmas attached to ice cream?

When amiable but undisciplined opportunist Caesar Barber sued four fast-food-restaurant chains because he is obese, no one was surprised. We all saw this coming.

When then-surgeon general David Satcher declared in December that obesity was a major U.S. health epidemic, he started the kind of public-health debate that tends to end in one of two places: legislation or litigation. In the case of laying blame for the perceived letting-out of our nation’s pants, we will probably get both before the year is out.

Never mind that the legal assault against “Big Fat” is silly on its face. (The restaurant chains named in Barber’s lawsuit already provide complete nutrition information to anyone who asks.) That lawsuit is just one play in a long game of political football.

The aggressors are a blend of self-anointed “food police” activists; overzealous public health “experts” who’d like to raise our children for us; advocates of “Twinkie taxes”; lawmakers who use the cudgel of government to appear “enlightened” enough to be re-elected; and, yes, those trial lawyers who smell a payday where most of us just smell dinner.

Several fouls have already been committed in this game, a few more flagrant than the rest.

Take the oft-cited statistic blaming 300,000 deaths a year on the effects of being overweight. Nonsense. The scientists whose work made that number a common statistic were careful to point out that such a huge figure presumed extra heft was responsible for “all excess mortality in obese people.” The New England Journal of Medicine said the evidence of such a high mortality rate “is by no means well established,” that the claim was “limited, fragmented and often ambiguous” and “derived from weak or incomplete data.”

And what of the alarming government claim that 61% of us are overweight or obese? That number is based on something called the Body Mass Index (BMI). Many are unaware that the U.S. government in 1998 lowered the BMI standard by which someone is considered overweight. As a result, close to 30 million Americans went from a government-approved weight to overweight overnight — without gaining an ounce. The BMI standard also has a serious flaw: Muscle outweighs fat. Using the BMI as a yardstick, you could conclude that half of the NBA needs to lose a few pounds. So do “overweight” actors George Clooney and Brad Pitt, or “obese” Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When such questionable conclusions go into the mass-media sausage grinder, baloney comes out. The “obesity epidemic” is used to justify a slew of ideas, many from the chief food cop, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), that wouldn’t have passed the laugh test not long ago. A soda-pop tax? Absolutely. Ban potato chips in schools? Sure. What’s next? Social stigmas attached to ice cream? Warning labels on onion rings? See these recent quotes:

  • CSPI’s Michael Jacobson: “We could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses (and) meat.”
  • George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf: “We’re now looking at going after schools and school boards and even school-board members (who) enter into contracts with fast-food companies and soft-drink companies to peddle their stuff in the school.”
  • Neal Barnard, president, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal-rights-funded nonprofit: Doctors who prescribe high-protein diets “may be assuming serious legal liability.”
  • At some point, we have to begin wondering, “What’s left?” Well, two-thirds of the meals served to Americans are prepared the old-fashioned way, at home. Hmmm. Remember the lawsuit in which the kids sued mom … ?

    — Richard Berman is executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of 30,000 restaurant and tavern operators.