Janesville61°

Don’t bloat federal bureaucracy to wage a crusade against expanded waistlines

Print Print
Jeffrey Axelrad
July 12, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Do we need a strong federal effort to combat the obesity pandemic?

Very recently, The Washington Post featured a weeklong, front-page series devoted to the pernicious effects of the increase it perceived in children’s obesity.


The article, headlined “Inertia at the Top,” relied upon critics who believe that efforts to stop this perceived crisis “suffered particularly from inadequate direction and dollars at the federal level.”


Almost immediately after its anti-obesity campaign ended, the same respected newspaper carried an inside-page story captioned “Childhood Obesity Rates Stop Rising!”


This dichotomy highlights the extent of the propaganda campaign now sweeping the country and our legislatures. Even though not a “big lie” technique, these misleading, shrill, panicked claims need to be taken with more than a small grain of salt. Here are some of the reasons.


What are the salient facts? Plainly, the use of modern technology to replace physical labor has an impact. We should place considerable value on fostering labor-saving innovations that foster productivity improvements and enhanced life choice; for instance, computer usage may replace some children’s relatively physical games but enhance familiarity with technology, and provide healthy mental stimulation, at the expense of some exercise. Surely, only the most confirmed Luddites want to shut down the Internet to preclude this paradigm shift in kids’ leisure activities.


When TV became prevalent, pediatricians parroted the received wisdom that TV is harmful to kids. Actually, a study summarized by two University of Chicago professors makes it clear that “preschool television exposure” leads to improved educational test scores later in life. My point is that sometimes increased body weight, even if due to less exercise, might indicate that other values of paramount importance to many people are being fostered.


Even aside from lifestyle changes that might, or might not, result in lower levels of physical activity, Americans’ weight gain is very possibly in good part a statistical artifact.


An article in The International Journal of Obesity’s by S.W. Keith of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and others outlines evidence that many factors, such as decreased sleep time, decreased smoking, changes in distribution of ethnicity and age, increased ages of mothers at the time they give birth and other shifts in how we live our lives are likely explanations for part of the statistical phenomenon indicating average weight gains. The reasons for weight gain are as varied as life itself; countless advantageous, individual-specific factors contribute to weight gain.


What is the most substantial policy consideration?


“Each year, tens of millions of Americans become ill and thousands die from eating unsafe foods” according to testimony on behalf of the General Accountability Office, relying on Centers for Disease Control data. Our “fragmented” food safety regulatory structure and insufficient attention to keeping our food safe contribute to this basic problem.


The federal government should ensure that the companies involved in beef production and marketing, for instance, do not sell meat that is tainted.


The campaign for anti-obesity legislation amounts to an effort to control the food people eat through federal propaganda, legislation and regulations relating to eating hamburgers, steaks or desserts. These campaigns and efforts will have the inevitable effect of blurring our government’s focus on food purity. Our federal resources and attention need to concentrate on improving our ability to keep food pure and wholesome, so that spinach isn’t sold with harmful levels of E. coli and beef isn’t sold tainted with fecal matter. Proponents of lifestyle changes at the behest of the federal government want a host of extensive programs, with their attendant resource needs and bureaucracies.


Experience with prior federal initiatives underscores the need for the government to concentrate on its basic responsibilities rather than dither over trendy concepts. In short, we need to improve food safety rather than introduce new programs that divert management attention and federal funds from this core governmental function.


Jeffrey Axelrad is a lecturer in law at George Washington University. Readers may write him at GWU Law, 2000 H St., NW Washington, DC 20052.

Print Print