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Are We Really Force Fed?

Mises Daily: Friday, July 30, 2004 by

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We are advised that America is experiencing an "Obesity Epidemic", as if it is some sort of contagious disease. Government "officials" tell us that Americans are becoming obese at an alarming rate; they appear on network news programs warning of the health consequences of being overweight. Politicians talk about taxing fattening foods to stop us from harming ourselves. Meanwhile, morning news programs and pop-culture magazines promulgate the claims, and back them with anecdotes, personal stories, and offers for weight loss products that can change one's life.

Perhaps nowhere was this more in evidence than on ABC in June. For an entire week, ABC's "World News Tonight", and "Nightline" devoted as much attention as possible to the terrible trend towards morbid obesity in America. Culminating over a year of government warnings that began in January of 2003[i], the floridly titled, "Critical Condition: America's Obesity Crisis" criticized fast food restaurants, advertisers, private insurance companies, employers and, of course, free will.

At the same time, the features sang the praises of such ideas as taxing fattening foods, and using government programs to combat this pressing emergency.

The high point came on June 2, when correspondent Michelle Martin appeared on "Nightline" to sum up the entire ABC perspective.

Introduced by the urbane and restrained man of journalistic ethics, Ted Koppel, the program began with a derogatory cut on talk radio, where, Mr. Koppel said, he enjoyed "listening to the verbal agility of the host and the absolute certainty with which he plunges into areas about which he clearly knows nothing."

This implied that Mr. Koppel knew something the talk host did not, which is clearly what we ought to assume, since Mr. Koppel is, after all, Mr. Koppel.

He went on:

"Anyway, I gather that my friend, the radio host, was put out by the notion that obesity might be the responsibility of anyone other than the obese person… This was one of those classic rants about freedom and responsibility.  We are all free, in other words, to eat whatever we want.  And, if we become grossly overweight, it is our own responsibility and nobody else's…  Bluntly stated, if you're fat, it's your own damn fault.  There is some truth to that.  But if, for example, you are poor, live in the inner city, and have no transportation of your own, you are significantly more likely to be obese, than if you are well-off, drive your own car and live in the suburbs. And while education does make a difference, it's not the key factor. Take a look at what 'Nightline' producer Marie Nelson and correspondent Michel Martin found."

The core of the ABC argument was thus stylishly presented, or, to be more precise, it was deftly implied. According to Ted Koppel, Marie Nelson, Michel Martin and "Nightline", true "thinking people" know that obesity is not one's own fault, it's the fault of society. It's almost as if we are being told, "watch the show, and learn!"

Well, let's study the major portions of the presentation…

"The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one out of four adults with incomes below the poverty level is obese," reports Martin in the "Nightline" piece. "The correlation is especially true for women.  Those with incomes below the poverty level are more than twice as likely to be obese as women with the highest incomes."

Her opening thesis is stated more generally and more overtly by one of her interview subjects, Dr. Adam Drunowski, of the University of Washington. An outspoken proponent of economic determinism for obesity, Drunowski claims quite defiantly, "Well, some people say that obesity is a result of a low metabolism. I say it is really the result of low wages."

Which means a lot when you think about it… When you think about it the way ABC and Dr. Drunowski would prefer.

In their view, obesity is an indictment of capitalism, the result of an out of control system which caters to the "haves" and neglects the "have-nots". According to Martin, Drunowski, and others who support the belief that higher rates of obesity in the inner cities are not just correlated to, but caused by poverty, the free market system which has brought the United States such plenty is rigged against the poor. While it provides unlimited nutritional choices to those who live in the suburbs, drive cars, and can make it to large supermarkets, it offers only junk and fast food to those who need nutritious meals the most, and who can't get outside the city.

To illustrate her point, Martin joins a Detroit resident named George Bogen, a man who weighs over 485 pounds, and who has taken steps to lose weight. One such step is to walk home from work. Unfortunately, according to Martin, his poor environment is bereft of affordable "good" food, and is "a gauntlet of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores."

Thus, the noble Bogen is left "on his own" to try to get past the McDonalds and chain stores that call like Sirens to him on his odyssey. This, clearly, is a state of affairs which not only indicts capitalism, the system that put these trashy food places in his way, but also those who would try to keep government small, and not give him help trying to combat the psychic torture of having to walk past such enticing sites. Letting a local doctor speak for her, Martin implies that Bogen is at a disadvantage because government "insurers" will not reimburse for obesity-related counseling.

And so, with a few more flourishes about people "dying from obesity", and attacks on the lack of availability of "healthy food" at corner stores, Martin ends her piece by calling on Dr. Kimberly Dawn-Wisdom, Michigan Surgeon General. According to Dawn-Wisdom, one way to help alleviate the problem would be to:

"Provide affordable fruits and vegetables...  And help individuals understand and empower them to know how to cook these vegetables, how to prepare them, how to serve them regularly."

And there you have it. What the ignorant radio host who believed in free will didn't understand was that capitalism has set up so many roadblocks to good nutrition in the inner cities that people simply cannot get good food, and are forced to become obese. Additionally, this daft talk host had better wake up to the fact that we need taxpayer funded fruit and vegetable programs, and obesity counseling to rectify the problem that capitalism has caused! Yes, the "Nightline" crew knows more than the talk host. And now we know as well.

There are, unfortunately, a few holes in this line of reasoning. Besides the fact that the government classification of "obese" could apply to people such as Russell Crowe and George Clooney, the very scientific claims about obesity being tremendously life-threatening are also in dispute. According to The Guardian, a 1996 project at Cornell University gathered data from dozens of previous Body Mass Index (BMI) studies "involving a total of more than 600,000 subjects with up to a 30-year follow-up."

According to the macro study: "Among non-smoking white men, the lowest mortality rate was found among those with a BMI between 23 and 29, which means that a large majority of the men who lived longest were 'overweight' according to government guidelines." When looking at non-smoking white women, "The conclusions were even more striking. The BMI range correlating with the lowest mortality rate was extremely broad, from around 18 to 32, meaning a woman of average height could weigh anywhere within an 80-pound range without seeing any statistically significant change in her risk of premature death."[ii]

Other statistics would seem to buttress these conclusions. While the "obesity" rate as characterized by government spokesmen has been increasing dramatically, the average life expectancy has done nothing but increase as well. In May of 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported that life expectancy had risen from 75.2 years in 1990, to 77.4 years in 2002. All of this while people in the inner city were running the gauntlet of fast food and corner stores, and the federal government looked the other way when it came to providing obesity counseling for the poor.

And what of the claims made by Martin and her interview subjects that our free market system has hampered poor people in their search to buy good food?

This is a matter of economics. Anyone who runs a retail business or has worked at one, or even thought about how one operates, knows that utilization of shelf space is determined not by the heady notions of marketers and faceless capitalists who control the lives of helpless consumers, but by the store owners, based on what they correctly recognize as consumer demand in their stores.

The space provided for apples, oranges, bananas and tomatoes in a corner store is not tiny because the owner is cruelly keeping fruit and vegetables to a minimum in his establishment. It is tiny because he does not sell enough of those products to justify using up more productive shelf space. In other words, people like George Bogen have shown time and again that they prefer junk food and fast food over the "good" food Martin and her coterie of "experts" want them to eat.

One need not get first-hand evidence to confirm this fact. It is simply a matter of supply and demand. But if one did want to back it up, he need only do what I did: walk into a local chain store. In my case, it was the Seven-Eleven located on my way to work, a place where I frequently grab an apple and chocolate milk to go with a sandwich for lunch.

When asked if he would stock more fruit and vegetables if there were more demand for it over, say, Fritos and soda, the manager said, "Of course!"

When told about the argument offered by Michel Martin and the proponents of government intervention in diet, he laughed very loudly, leaning back from the counter.

"That's crazy! They don't know who is in charge here!"

No, they don't, and not many people involved in trying to regulate the choices of consumers really do. But that doesn't stop them from trying. The reason they continue in their Quixotic struggle is that they believe, in large or small degree, in the Marxist myth that the owners of the means of production make people buy things. With their Svengali-like powers, these capitalists can mesmerize people, turning them into consuming automatons, exploiting them, and pointing them towards dietary choices like chips and cookies and Big Macs when, under the control of the government, the choices offered would be highly nutritious fruits and fibers.

Of course, it isn't the business owner who is in charge of the transaction, it is the consumer. Unless the consumer is willing to part with his cash, he will not spend it. Unless the consumer sees what he desires, the business owner will not be able to stay in business. As it turns out, the owner of the means of production is always at the mercy of consumer taste, and the proportion of convenience store shelf space devoted to "good" food is determined by this taste as well.

Based on Michel Martin's report, George Bogen had two sisters. One of them had private insurance and got gastric by-pass surgery when she weighed 350 pounds. The other passed away. His surviving sister told Martin, "If they could see a picture of my sister laying in a casket, and know that on her death certificate it says 'immediate cause of death, obesity,' then maybe that will wake up the government."

It would be preferable to let the government rest. It has been far too busy tinkering with our private lives as it is. The last thing store owners like my neighbor, I, and the other consumers who frequent his establishment need is a government superceding our own preferences regarding what we eat to stay alive.



Gard Goldsmith lives in New Hampshire. elggrande@msn.com. See his archive and comment on this article on the blog.

[i]  US Surgeon General Richard Carmona announced in January of 2003 that obesity was a public health risk akin to a weapon of mass destruction .

[ii]The Guardian, April 24, 2004. Reprinted in The Guardian Unlimited online.