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Much to debate about radical anti-obesity plan

Published March 30. 2013 09:02AM

Sometimes this column answers questions.

Today, it asks one, one specific question that has the potential to polarize the nation like hot-button topics such as abortion and gun control.

The question: Should the government create an environment that stigmatizes and to some degree ostracizes obese people as a way possibly the only way to solve what Daniel Callahan calls "[possibly] the most difficult and elusive public health problem the United States has ever encountered"?

Callahan and The Hastings Center, which he co-founded, clearly answer yes in a recent article, "Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic." The article contends that the nation encountered a similar problem years ago with cigarette smoking and that no progress was made until the government created laws that engendered the attitude that cigarette smoking was socially unacceptable.

Now that you know the The Hastings Center's stance, it's time to separate the crux of this column from it. After all, the mainstream medical community and mainstream society to a large degree has already decided their doctrine to be too draconian.

Proof of this can be found in the legal backlash resulting from New York City's attempt to limit the size of sugary beverages served in certain establishments within its confines.

But limiting the places where smokers can smoke and taxing the habit to the hilt have dramatically reduced the percentage of adults who light up. Way back before the Surgeon General placed a warning on cigarette packs, nearly one out of every two adults smoked.

Now, depending on the survey, the ratio is just above or just below one out of every five.

So making the smoker a social pariah has worked. While the health hazard posed by secondhand smoke is one of the reasons why, economic concerns were also a significant factor.

For despite the aforementioned reduction in the percentage of American adults smoking, the cost of the habit to the health care system is still staggering. An Associated Press article published early this year listed the annual health care costs created by smokers and their habit at $96 billion a year.

But do you know what's even more staggering? That the cost created by the obese is $51 billion more yes, more a year.

In other words, if we'd wipe out obesity, we'd not only have a physically healthier society the life expectancy of the obese tends to be up to 12 years lower but also a financially healthier one.

Wouldn't that have to be the result of $147 billion dollars suddenly free to buy clothes and cars and pay off debts?

Yet the argument doesn't only make sense from a national economic perspective. The Hastings Center and anyone else can argue that taking a "tough love" stance serves the obese individual as well.

Consider an article published in last October's issue of Physiology & Behavior that supports what Carol Simontacchi presciently argued years ago in The Crazy Makers: that eating the stuff that makes us overweight also alters the brain. American University researchers found that the two elements in diets most responsible for obesity, high-fat and high-sugar foods, create changes in the brain that create a greater desire for those foods.

Talk about a catch-22.

But it's a catch-22 that fast-food manufacturers already knew. For them, the greatest financial benefit in creating unhealthy food is that it creates a hunger for more.

While the attempt here has been to simply present the Hastings Center's idea and let you decide its merits, I fear I may have failed to remain objective. So let me state my views on obesity.

Though it is clear there is a genetic component to obesity meaning certain people are more likely to become obese it's only rare cases, scientific research estimates about three percent, where individuals are simply doomed to be obese.

In most cases, the obesity occurs because poor eating and lack of exercise trigger the wrong genetic response.

When I have engaged in rational conversations about their unwanted weight, a frequently made comment by the overweight and obese is that society has created an environment with easy access to unhealthy food 24 hours a day and relatively little time to cook healthy meals and exercise that promotes weight gain. I agree to that observation in spades.

A measure like government subsidization of healthy foods, which is suggested in the Hastings Center article, would not necessarily stigmatize the obese as much as it would allow many especially the poor an alternative to calorie-dense food.

And if subtle or not so subtle pressure is applied to make Americans take advantage of such offers, I don't object.

After all, when you eat yourself to death you're killing more than yourself. You're saying farewell to your community by figuratively kicking it in its financial crotch.

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