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DOMESTIC POLICY

March 21, 2002
From the St. Louis Post Dispatch

No Fat Tax
by Russell Roberts

I wish I weighed a little bit less. Or a lot less. And I often fear, to paraphrase Kingsley Amis, that I'm heading in the wrong direction, that inside of me is an even fatter me waiting to get out.

I'm not alone. A recent study found that 80% of the American people are overweight. Many of us seem to have trouble saying no to that second piece of pie, the super-sizing of fries and the longing to lay on the couch burning up as few calories as possible.

I have always thought of my weight as kind of personal. It often is. When I get my driver's license and the clerk ask my weight, I'm on the honor system. The clerk demands an eye test, but there's no scale. A confession—I take what I actually weigh and what I'd like to weigh and split the difference. So far, even the security people at the airport let me get away with this deception.

But like everything else these days, the personal is political. Some people say my weight problem is your problem and vice versa. Obesity is related to higher risks of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and lots of other unpleasant outcomes.

According to the Surgeon General of the United States, obesity costs the United States $117 billion a year. It's reaching "epidemic proportions." He estimates that as many as 300,000 people may die prematurely due to obesity, approaching the death toll from tobacco.

There are two magic words in the Surgeon General's language—epidemic and tobacco. Using the word epidemic conveys the impression that obesity is a disease and therefore an appropriate concern of the nation's premier public health official. It suggests that personal choice and responsibility are irrelevant. And by invoking tobacco, he sets the stage for regulation and other intervention to help us get thinner.

I have a different perspective. For most of us, obesity is not a disease but a failure of self-control. It's in the same category as procrastination, impatience and many other character traits I try to improve. I don't want the government hectoring me to eat less and exercise more. I don't want the government using my money and yours to monitor my fat intake or the cholesterol allowed in the menu at the local fast food restaurant. And I don't want the government taxing fat on menus, at groceries or on my 1040 Form.

I don't have a problem with puritans who urge me to eat healthier foods or take smaller portions. There's something charming about exhorting others to be better. That's what preaching is all about. But preaching is best done on one's own nickel. That's why the Constitution forbids government establishment of religion. Otherwise you risk the road to tyranny where the government decides how we should lead our lives.

The government should stay out of other personal choices I make for the same reasons.

But if obesity causes health problems, doesn't that justify government's involvement? After all, if we taxpayers have to foot the bill for some of those higher health care costs, don't we have the right to intervene in each others lives?

This argument has been used to justify the on-going and growing regulation of tobacco. It's actually a lie. Smoking causes people to die earlier and relatively quickly, saving enough in Social Security expenditures to overwhelm the health care outlays. That actually justifies subsidizing tobacco rather than taxing it if you think that we should base public policy based only on the impact on government spending.

I think that logic is grotesque. But it's more than grotesque. It's dangerous. AIDS is a very costly disease, and some of those costs are born by taxpayers. AIDS is associated with certain sexual practices. Does that justify government regulation in the bedroom?

I don't think so. But my eating habits or yours don't justify the government's involvement in the kitchen, either.

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