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Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2001/ 14 Kislev, 5762

Larry Elder

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Consumer Reports

Shallow Hollywood double standard -- SO, here's the movie pitch:

There's an average-looking guy seeking a lifelong female companion, who adamantly adheres to one rule -- no cigarette smoking. He meets, however, an attractive, smart, witty, vibrant person of good character with one flaw: she smokes. What to do, what to do?

But, voila. A friend hypnotizes him into ignoring her loathsome habit. Now, undaunted by her post-dinner filters, he falls hopelessly, madly in love. But the spell wears off, and, much to his horror, he discovers, gasp, he now loves a smoker with a three-pack-a-day jones. Oh, sure, he huffs off for a time, pouts a bit, and then loneliness and realization set in. He learns to look past her habit, and to consider the total package. He commits. Love triumphs.

Now, take out the word "cigarette," and replace it with the word "fat." This gives us the very premise of the current Hollywood movie "Shallow Hal." Hal, a guy obsessed with finding the perfect 10, meets a morbidly obese Gwyneth Paltrow. Hypnotized to overlook her obesity, Hal falls in love. But when the spell wears off, he realizes, much to his dismay, that his new love makes Jabba the Hutt look dainty. But loneliness and realization set in, and he conquers his superficiality, and professes his love to all 300 pounds of her.

The cigarette police constantly tell us that 400,000 Americans die each year through cigarette smoking. We hear about the money cigarette smoking allegedly costs the taxpayers. We hear lectures about the "selfishness" of this habit given the possibility of departing early from loved ones, including children and grandchildren. We pass laws outlawing smoking in restaurants and bars, and, in some cases, even in outdoor areas like public parks. We allow offices to maintain no-smoking policies, both for atmosphere and to save on medical costs. But, according to the American Medical Association, almost as many people die every year due to excess body fat.

"Shallow Hal" attributes no character flaws to people who consume too much food and burn too little energy, the primary cause of obesity. But cigarette smoking, that's different. President of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti and Chairwoman of Paramount Pictures Sherry Lansing, in conjunction with a cancer-fighting campaign, headed a task force devoted to finding "new ways to reduce tobacco use" in films. Hollywood power Rob Reiner led a California initiative that placed a tax on cigarettes. He hoped the measure would both raise money for "childhood development programs" and "to discourage cigarette smoking." (Of course, in the Reiner movies, "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Stand By Me," characters smoked, but we digress.)

The Montgomery County council in Maryland recently took anti-smoking hysteria to another level. Citing health concerns over secondhand smoke, the county voted to fine people up to $750 for smoking inside their own homes if a neighbor complains. Health concerns? Montgomery County council member Michael L. Subin, who voted against the law, said that no one offered scientific proof of the negative health consequences to a neighbor via secondhand smoke.

What about the science? In his opinion in a "secondhand cigarette smoking case," Federal District Judge William Osteen practically laughed at the Environmental Protection Agency's "data": "EPA publicly committed to conclusion before the research had begun, adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate its conclusion, and aggressively utilized its authority to disseminate findings to establish a de facto regulatory scheme to influence public opinion." In other words, "junk science."

The National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance condemned "Shallow Hal," considering superficial a premise that says, "Before you love me, you must first imagine me thin." Fair enough. But as columnist Debbie Schlussel notes, "In 2000, (advocates for size acceptance) pressured San Francisco to pass laws against weight and height discrimination." So, citing health insurance costs, an employer may refuse to hire a cigarette smoker. But that same employer, citing the same concerns, cannot refuse to hire someone fat.

Lighten up. America faces far more pressing issues than having a population considered more than half overweight or obese. Where's the moral imperative in crash-dieting to a perfect size 6 just because society says, "Thin is in"? And certainly people find it extremely difficult to lose weight and keep it off, just as people who picked up the habit of cigarette smoking find it agonizing to shake the habit.

Both cigarette smoking and obesity, for the most part, come from voluntary behavior. We demonize one habit, while erecting a no-fly zone over the other. We make moral judgments about and condemn the character of cigarette smokers for their unhealthful but voluntary behavior. But Hollywood considers it politically incorrect to apply the same standard to obesity. Is there a National Association for the Acceptance of Cigarette Smokers? Imagine the bumper stickers: "Hate the Smoke, Love the Smoker."

JWR contributor Larry Elder is the author of the newly released, The Ten Things You Can't Say in America. (Proceeds from sales help fund JWR) Let him know what you think of his column by clicking here.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate