The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosted a three-day conference this week on obesity. And judging from some of the policy ideas put forth, Americans have plenty of reasons to be worried about weight gain that go far beyond the chronic diseases and diminished quality of life that can result from obesity.
According to the CDC, one-third of U.S. adults are obese today, but 42 percent will be obese by 2030. The percentage of severely obese Americans will nearly double over that same span, from 6 percent to 11 percent.
There has been some headway in combatting obesity since health officials started sounding alarms in the 1980s. Rates are holding steady for women, and overall they aren't rising as fast as they were 20 years ago.
But that's not enough progress for some health advocates. The activist Institute of Medicine used the conference to release a 478-page report that calls for sweeping steps to reduce obesity, especially among children. Among the recommendations: new taxes on sugary drinks; prohibitions on marketing certain foods and drinks to kids; heavy-handed regulations and price controls on restaurant meals; mandates at schools and workplaces to promote physical activity and healthy food choices; and major government interventions if industries and schools fail to fall in line.
The institute's report says Americans have been urged to better manage their weight for years. But because a growing number of people are still getting fat, its authors have concluded that the country is "obesogenic" - its media and culture so relentlessly promote unhealthful choices that an average person is incapable of maintaining a healthy weight.
Their ultimate justification for such actions, of course, is medical costs. Obesity drives up those costs, and because we all share those bills through government programs or cost-shifting to the insured, they say we must take drastic steps to save money. In fact, this highlights how socializing costs represents a very real danger to personal freedom and liberty.
Yes, obesity is a health problem, and doctors and organizations are wise to counsel people on how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. But such advice must not put us on a slippery slope toward top-down control of our personal choices and put new onuses on schools and businesses. Where does it stop? How long will it be before having an overweight child is grounds for loss of custody? How long before every county has a government-run weight-loss ranch?
Reality check: Kids don't walk or bike to school as much these days because worried parents won't let them. Most kids don't eat healthy food at school, even if it's forced on them, because they don't like it. Schools don't have as much physical education and recess because play time has been crowded out by curriculum mandates and test preparation. And if grown-ups choose to ignore the advice of family, friends, doctors and Nanny Staters ... well, we still live in the land of the free, don't we?