Have We Had Enough - Yet?

Kaiser Permanente, an Oakland, California health provider, found that the health costs of their obese members were 44 percent higher than the average. Included in the findings, published by Archives of Internal Medicine severely and moderately overweight people, respectively, had 24 and 17 percent higher rates of hospital visits, hospital stays were 74 and 34 percent longer and pharmacy costs were 78 and 60 percent higher. Each year, over 300,000 deaths are attributable to being overweight. Since we Americans have allowed Congress to establish the principle that they can step in to control our lives when a behavior raises healthcare costs, you can bet that food regulation is in the offing.

Being overweight is just as avoidable as cigarette smoking. So why not tax food, candy and pastries? Food companies are just as guilty as tobacco companies; they know that there is no nutritional reason for people to eat candy, pastries and other fatty foods. So let's have federal and state governments sue food companies to recover healthcare costs of overweight people.

You say, "Hold it, Williams; our politicians wouldn't go that far. Those smelly cigarettes you smoke are one thing but my beer, potato chips and candy are entirely another matter!" Check this out. Dr. JoAnn E. Mason, of Harvard Medical Schools says, "It won't be long before obesity surpasses cigarette smoking as a cause of death in this country." Yale University's Professor Kelley D. Brownell, director of the Center for Eating & Weight Disorders, has proposed that fatty foods and those with little nutritional content be taxed and "junk" food commercials be regulated. He recommends that the tax proceeds be used to build bike and hiking trails. But what if people choose not to bike and hike? It's not that farfetched to predict congressionally-mandated exercise.

You say, "Williams, that is farfetched!" Pretend you're back in the 1960s when the anti-cigarette people were demanding no-smoking sections on airplanes. Suppose there was someone prescient enough to have suggested that giving in to that demand would embolden anti-cigarette people to demand bans on smoking in bars, confiscatory taxes and tobacco company suits. Such a prediction would have been vehemently rejected and the predictor held up to scorn and ridicule.

It's a good idea for people to watch their diets, exercise and not smoke too much. But if people don't voluntarily do what I think is prudent behavior, should Congress punish them? When Washington's politicians talk about federal steps to reduce smoking, steps to reduce drunk driving, or steps to put more teachers in classes, the debate shouldn't be whether these are good or bad ideas. The debate should be: are those congressional acts permitted by the United States Constitution? If you're not sure about what's permissible, read Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

You say, "Williams, what do decent Americans do?" First, recognize that Congress does not have enough marshals, or the states enough police, to enforce every law they write if citizens choose not to obey them. The California legislature banned smoking in bars. Both bar owners and patrons ignored the law plus, bar owners threatened to throw state lottery machines out into the streets. The legislature repealed the ban. When Congress passed the 55 mph speed limit, Americans ignored it. Frederic Bastiat, the great 19th century philosopher said, "When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law." That's the dilemma facing us. As for me, I prefer to err on the side of morality.

Walter E. Williams


March 16, 1998