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Joe Camel today, the Pillsbury Doughboy tomorrow.

Who was surprised when it didn't top with tobacco? And who was surprised when Yale University joined the next wave of shaking down politically incorrect companies with deep pockets?

Researchers at Yale are now advocating that junk foods be slapped with a "fat tax." Our "toxic food environment," says Yale professor Kelly Brownell, director of the university's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, is seducing us into a "diet that is high in fat, high in calories, delicious, widely available, and low in cost." Writing in the journal Addictive Behavior, Brownell and Yale graduate student Katherine Battle contend that the government should subsidize healthy foods and hike taxes on "unhealthy" foods that are high in fat and cholesterol.

On top of our kids "being blitzed with messages to eat more," maintains Brownell, some 95 percent of the food commercials seen by the average child are pushing sugared cereals, soft drinks, fast food, and candy. "As a culture, we get upset about Joe Camel," Brownell asserts, "yet we tolerate our children seeing 10,000 commercials a year that promote foods that are every bit as unhealthy." The solution? "Junk foods advertisements should be regulated and excise taxes imposed on high-fat foods," says Brownell, "just as they are on tobacco and alcohol." Pillsbury Doughboy, watch out.

"A whopping 7 percent of Americans eat at McDonald's on any given day," says Brownell. And worse, enticed by "value meals," we're swayed to chow down a "supersize" pile of fries along with our Coke and Quarter Pounders. "McDonald's stated goal," forewarns Brownell, "is to have no American living more than four minutes away from one of its restaurants."

In addition to being disturbed by the perils of hamburgers, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has declared sweet-and-sour pork, enchiladas, and fettuccine alfredo as verboten and is now testing the fare at Chili's and Domino's.

Joining this new puritanism--the condemnation of our lunch choices--is Michael Fumento, conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The United States is the fattest industrialized nation on Earth," says Fumento, with about three-fourths of us now "certifiably heavier than prime health dictates"--up twelve pounds per capita, on average, since 1988.

Fumento traces the growth of various foods. McDonald's hamburger, for instance, starting out at 3.6 ounces, grew to the Quarter Pounder and then to the Arch Deluxe at nine ounces. Butterfinger candy bars, beginning at 280 calories, surged to 680 calories. Food stores, too, once neighborhood mom-and-pops, grew into supermarkets and then into massive super-warehouses where we can load up on three-pound boxes of Cheerios, gallon jars of sweet relish, and Snickers by the pallet.

We're a nation, laments Fumento, that now buys its big pants from a Nothing in Moderation catalog and can read in People magazine's "Happy As They Are" cover article that Delta Burke, Rosie O'Donnell, and Wynonna Judd are showing, pound for pound, that scrawny is no longer a prerequisite for happiness and Success.

"Ultimately, our growth in girth is a social problem, just as unwed pregnancies," asserts Fumento, and that means "society needs to take responsibility for defending its interests." Our lunch, in short, is no longer a private matter.

Taking the lead, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Maine have levied higher taxes on snacks and soft drinks. Going further, "The Sustainability Plan," a report prepared for and endorsed by the San Francisco city government, calls for more "culturally responsive" foods, a "fruit tree in every yard," and "citywide production quotas" for "appropriate crops."

Frank Vandall, the Emory University law professor who egged on Mississippi to file the first lawsuit against tobacco companies and currently has plaintiffs' lawyers licking their chops over a class-action kill against beer and liquor companies, says that he "can't rule out" that America's fast-food chains will be the next target. "Look next for charges that the soft drink industry deliberately manipulates the sugar and fat content of their products in order to hook consumers," says lnvestor's Business Daily.

Unfortunately, as this latest uproar of preaching and central planning begins turning into another regulatory and litigation monstrosity, scientific evidence is taking a back seat to the conventional wisdom about the link between weight and health. Glenn A. Gaesser, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Virginia, for instance, reports that "the lowest death rates are found in the fittest men and women, no matter what they weigh." In fact, according to Gaesser, actuarial studies show that, "for an average-height woman (5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 6 inches) in her fifties, the weight at which she would have the lowest of all mortality rates would be 185-194 pounds." Gaesser's advice? "Exercise more, eat healthier foods, and don't obsess about the numbers on the bathroom scale."

Instead of that path of individual responsibility, the proposed course of more litigation and regulation becomes another assault on freedom and capitalism, on the right of individuals to make free choices in the market.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter once argued that capitalism's success would be its demise, that the system's productivity and riches would artificially support an assembly of parasites--bureaucrats, professors, lawyers, and politicians--that would eventually consume its host, the entrepreneurs and risk-takers who actually produce the wealth, like when McDonald's is too much for Yale.

Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economic at Robert Morris College in Pittsburg.
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Title Annotation:activists seek tax hike on high-fat, unhealthy foods
Author:Reiland, Ralph R.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Words:889
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