This is a predictable (and predicted) development: people are now advocating levying hefty taxes on foods and drinks that contribute to obesity in order to help pay for health care. The underlying concept is that obesity has contributed mightily to increasing health care costs, so behavior that contributes to obesity should be discouraged. Taxes on cigarettes — which are now being viewed as a principal reason for the decline in cigarette smoking — are cited as a model to follow. Experts on taxes and behavioral modification argue that, to be effective, the taxes should amount to at least one-tenth to one-third of the item’s total cost.
I’m skeptical of taxes as a tool for behavioral modification because of their inefficiency, but I think the notion of “weight taxes” is pernicious for another reason. Any time the government gets to decide what kind of otherwise innocent conduct should be discouraged, we have given up significant freedoms. I enjoy a Butterfinger Blizzard now and then during the summer months. Why should I pay additional amounts in taxes simply because some bureaucrat has decided that ice cream is a significant contributor to obesity? If statistics show that joggers are more prone to sudden heart attacks, should athletic shoes be taxed? If mountain climbers are more likely to be caught in an avalanche, precipitating massive manhunts and search efforts, should mountain climbing be massively taxed to discourage such potentially costly behavior?
Let’s not kid ourselves — if the health Nazis ran the world, we would all be eating raw vegetables and participating in mandatory walking clubs and “wellness” counseling sessions. Do we really want Big Brother to decide what we should and shouldn’t eat and drink, how we should spend our leisure time, and generally how we should live our lives? I think a world without bacon double cheeseburgers and Frosted Flakes would be pretty dull, and I’m willing to put up with a bit of obesity to avoid that grim scenario.
Dr. Regina Benjamin
I am appalled by the mean-spirited comments of people who have raised questions about the weight of President Obama’s nominee to be Surgeon General. By all accounts, Dr. Regina Benjamin is a fine family doctor who has sacrificed much for her patients; rather than maximizing her potential financial return she has pursued a practice that focuses on patient care and helping needy people in a depressed community. Her story is inspiring, and is echoed in the stories of many other family practice doctors in communities across America. These are doctors, healers, and counselors who, like our own family doctor, have decided that actually practicing medicine and interacting with patients is rewarding in and of itself — even if it means wrestling with insurance forms and payment issues, paying hefty malpractice insurance premiums and, in Dr. Benjamin’s case, rebuilding your clinic after fires or hurricanes. Given her background and her accomplishments, why in the world would anyone think it appropriate to talk about her weight or her appearance?
I think there are two sources of this regrettable phenomenon. First, many people are simply much less polite than they used to be. Someone’s weight or appearance used to be off limits — even Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, in his classic book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, acknowledged that — but it now seems fair game to comment freely on someone’s appearance and even make fun of them if they don’t meet some ideal of physical beauty. Second, our society often seems to be in the grip of health Nazis who think they should be able to tell us what to eat, what to drink, and how to exercise. If we don’t meet their standards they have no problem in passing judgment on our character. For these people, only a rail-thin fitness freak vegetarian jogger could pass muster as the Surgeon General nominee.
I think having a family doctor who has faced a bunch of real world issues serve as Surgeon General is a good idea. Dr. Regina Jefferson may ultimately be effective or ineffective as Surgeon General, but her weight should have, and will have, nothing to do with her performance in that capacity.
One of the worst aspects of our modern society is that we constantly are hectored and beset by the well-meaning yet firm advice of so-called experts on all manners of personal choices that used to be left up to individuals to decide — such as what to eat. The news is filled with all kinds of “studies” that tell us what is good for us and what is not. “Nutritionists,” “healthy living” activists, vegans, and other zealots feel free to lecture us about why we are making “bad choices.”
When you’ve lived long enough, and pay any kind of attention to the news, you come to realize that many of the studies turn out to be wrong, and the “conventional wisdom” often is misguided. The first “health scares” I recall hearing about as a kid involved cyclamates and “red dye no. 2,” both of which were found to be harmless in later studies. We have heard that salt might be good, neutral, or bad; we’ve changed the “food pyramid”; we’ve countlessly revisited whether drinking milk is healthy or not; and we’ve made countless other modifications in “recommended” food choices as new “studies” have been published that contradicted the allegedly scientific “studies” that were published only a few years earlier. Junkfood science is an interesting website the debunks some of the prevailing views on food choices, including the recent “study” that was reported as indicating that diets with red meat are linked with decreased life expectancy.
So, don’t cite a bunch of studies in arguing that I should eat vegetables rather than meats, grains, and cheeses. My view is just that people should be free to make their own decisions, without having to endure the criticisms of sanctimonious advocates. If you actually want to eat slimy vegetables rather than a juicy cheeseburger for lunch, that’s fine by me. Just don’t tell me that I am making unwise health choices, or act like you are holier than thou because you picking something disgusting to eat rather than something delicious.