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Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 1999/28 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Larry Elder

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Coming soon: The Fat Tax -- IT'S ON. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released a new study. Americans, say the CDC, face a new epidemic -- fat people.

The CDC calls nearly 18 percent of Americans "obese," meaning that nearly one in five of us weighs more than 30 percent above the ideal. From 1991 to 1998, says Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, director of the CDC, "We had a 50 percent increase in obesity in all age groups and in all ethnic groups. We've had a steady increase throughout the 20th century, but this is a remarkably quick upturn ... We don't have a simple answer why." Gee, I dunno, maybe people are, like, eating a lot.

But if one defines "fat" as being above the ideal, but less than 30 percent overweight, this expands the fat pool considerably. Under this more generous definition of overweight, a Tufts University study found 63 percent of men and 55 percent of women fat. Shocking!

One newspaper editorial, calling the results a "public health crisis," condescendingly said, "So, as soon as you finish this paper, lace up your shoes and go out there and walk as if your life depended on it. It does."

Does this pattern sound familiar? First, we call something in which Americans voluntarily engage, whether smoking cigarettes or purchasing handguns, a "public health crisis." Then, Congress holds hearings to explore "alternatives" or "solutions." Next, we get regulation. Finally, Clinton declares Halloween trick-or-treating a national disaster, triggering the release of FEMA funds to distressed neighborhoods.

Don't laugh. Yale University Professor Kelly D. Brownell suggests taxing unhealthful foods. According to Brownell, Americans are being seduced by "our toxic food environment," which offers up a "diet that is high in fat, high in calories, delicious, widely available and low in cost." He recommends policies that would subsidize healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, while taxing "unhealthy" foods such as those high in fat and cholesterol. He proposed channeling the proceeds into nutrition education and public exercise programs.

A "Twinkie tax," says Brownell, would encourage people to make healthier eating choices. "As a culture, we get upset about Joe Camel, yet we tolerate our children seeing 10,000 commercials a year that promote foods that are every bit as unhealthy."

Hey, why not? After all, the government tells us that nearly 400,000 people die prematurely from cigarette smoking. To get this number, the government simply "credits" cigarettes with a death if the deceased smoked, no matter the decedent's age, weight, or lifestyle. So if a 97-year-old guy dies in his sleep, but paramedics find a pack of Winstons on the night stand, make it 400,001.

Now the CDC tells us that almost as many die from heart disease, a condition caused or exacerbated by an unhealthful diet. In short, McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's kill. So attorneys general, start your lawsuits! Why not a class action lawsuit against C&H Pure Cane Sugar? After all, these manufacturers probably knew that sugar rots teeth and provides little nutritional value, yet they nevertheless continued distributing the product without warning labels. Evil personified!

Oh, sure, some killjoy will remind us that Americans live longer and better than ever, and that, sooner or later, people die. From something. But such cynicism cannot stop the tofu-eating, tree-hugging, anti-smoking, I-can-look-out-for-your-health-better-than-you-can zealots who now have a new freedom-eroding cause -- slimming down fat people.

Somewhere, actor-director Rob Reiner trembles. He, after all, spearheaded a California proposition that placed a 50-cent tax on cigarettes. The portly Reiner, who seems quite capable of getting the best table at Fatburger's, could face a serious tax liability. But will Reiner, a rich man, suffer? No, a fat-tax, like the one on cigarettes, would fall directly on the shoulders of those least capable of affording it -- poor people. Studies show the poor more likely than the rich to eat an unhealthful diet, and therefore, they comprise a disproportionate number of the obese. But, then, this is for their own good, right?

Hillary Clinton tells us "it takes a village." President Clinton, however, recently lectured those who dislike him, and thus refuse to support Al Gore for President. "I don't think mature people," said Clinton, "hold one person responsible for another person's conduct, do you?" Well, yes. For "mature people" hold gun manufacturers responsible for the thug who kills, and hold cigarette manufacturers responsible for those who smoke despite warning labels. And now, "mature people" assault the eating habits of others. Is obesity harmless? Obviously not. But do we ask too much by allowing people to govern their own behavior?

So the "it takes a village" people carry on, with attorneys general, politicians, academics, and regulators happily marching along. As somebody once put it, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. And that's sufficient."

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©1999, Creators Syndicate