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Should the government help you lose weight?

A woman drinks an extra large soft drink from McDonald's in New York City. In an attempt by the administration to fight obesity, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to implement a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts.

Tess Vigeland: We talk a lot about choices on this program. You can choose to save or spend. You can choose to invest or not. This week the issue of consumer choice appeared front and center in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed banning giant-sized sugary drinks. Also this week Disney said it won't air ads for junk food during its programs.

Commentator Justin Wilson says that's one full plate of the nanny state.


Justin Wilson: When it comes to tackling obesity, everyone agrees that something should be done to confront the problem. But the billion dollar question is what role should the government play in reducing obesity rates?

Americans understanding of public health is at a crossroads. The original intent of public health regulations was to protect us from each other. That meant working on worthy causes like improving sanitation at meat-packing plants and developing vaccines to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

But with those problems largely contained, the public health paradigm has changed. Now many of those same regulators see it as their duty to protect us from ourselves.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent soda regulation rubbed many people the wrong way. In fact, a poll found that just 24 percent of Americans support his initiative. Our opposition to the paternalism of this policy isn't surprising; it stands in stark contrast to the ingrained sense of personal responsibility we share as a nation.

Mayor Bloomberg justified his plan by arguing that the $4 billion he estimates obesity costs the city gives him a mandate for action. But the problem is this: Life is risky. From the smallest of risks, like a shake or two of salt on your dinner, to the largest of risks, like going skydiving, everything we do "costs" society, but that doesn't mean the mayor or anyone else for that matter has a right to regulate it.

Obesity costs aren't any different than the billions of dollars that we spend on motorcycle accidents or slip-and-fall injuries, but you don't see the government banning motorcycles or mandating that pedestrians wear helmets. Those policies would undoubtedly save millions, if not billions of dollars, but we would never tolerate it because we recognize that some risks are, well, worth the risk.

Obesity is a product of personal irresponsibility. No one is forcing us to eat too much junk food or sit on the couch all day long and watch television. We're doing it to ourselves.

Since personal irresponsibility got us into this mess, it's going to take personal responsibility to get us out of it. That is the proper role of public health. Government should provide consumers with incentives, information and opportunities so that we can make smart choices and take responsibility for ourselves.


Vigeland: Justin Wilson is a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.

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Justin Wilson is a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.
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I would like to point out that the Center for Consumer Freedom says that overeating being a primary cause of obesity is a myth. They also have all sorts of misinformation including that it's a myth that you can't be obese and healthy.

I, for one, am a perfect example of a man why worked my tail off on a bicycle in preparations for a yearly 125 mile single day charity. I was on average 230 pound and at 5'9" this is obese. My vitals were good for a man my age, and I thought really good for a fat man my age. I did not control what I ate ate all. In May of 2011 I finally pushed the scale at 252. I cut out all soda, all junk food for which I have coined the phrase: Carbohydrate Rich Artificial Products, shopped on the perimeter of the grocery store, prepared my own meals, and basically limited my caloric intake. I have lost 60 pounds since then and I'm working on more. And my vitals aren't pretty darn good... they are great!! I am living proof that while exercise is important to overall health and weight loss, eating in moderation and healthfully is overwhelmingly the primary factor to weight loss.

I'm not some radical vegan; I even eat plenty of meat including beef. But as former science major and my own guinea pig, I can tell you for certain the CCF is cherry picking disparate data points to paint a deceptive picture so people will do the wrong thing. People aren't just fighting the avalanche of marketing designed to make them hungry and thirsty; they aren't fighting a company who fires their employees if they don't suggest the larger size is a great bargain; they are also fighting a misinformation campaign from an industry lobbying group.

Maybe the ban on giant soda sales isn't the answer, but I can guarantee that the fast food "healthy alternative" salad with more calories, fat and salt that their 1/4 lb burger isn't either.

Great article. Thanks Marketplace.

You're fat because you're lazy. Now, go get over it and do something about it.

Have a nice day.

Tess's response to listener criticism of MM's shameful slide into the fact-free paid-for sensationalistic public lobbying masquarading as Op-Ed was grossly inadequate. J.Justin Wilson and his employer, the big tabbacco and restaurant owners public relations firm, Berman and Company, have a history of pressing oblivious media programmers "false balance" button and getting un-equal play for their already air-time bloated corporate clients. While I was appalled that Tess and crew let this astro-turfed, un-qualified conservative hit-man de-jeur make sensationally innacurate, hurtful, and counterproductive claims about how to solve the financial and health care tsunami-in-the-making that is the obesity epidemic, it was salt on the wound to hear Tess's mea culpe of 'Hey, were just starting a dialogue'. Dialogues do not begin with falsehoods, emotionally belittling statements and do not conflate real health and economic injuries with highly fictionalized Orewellien visions of a non-existent nanny-state. If MM cant exercise control over its own show and display at least a modicum of fact checking and truely back and forth dialogue (two people conversing with each other) then at least have the decency to call your show what it has become, an occasional advertisement.
If MM would still like to claim ignorance about JJ Wilsons intentions, please let me point out that JJ Wilsons background, his paid status as a corporate shill on this very topic, and as general conservative activist fresh out of school is available via google in 10 seconds, as is the fact that he and his company do know that there are multiple multiple causes to the obesity epidemic that have nothing to do with personal will power or irresponsibility. Evidence of their knowledge is found in their repeated commentary (since 2004, shortly after JJ Wilson joined Berman & Co.) on CDC, New England Journal of Medicine, and NIH reports documenting the multiple causes of and insufficiency of simple personal will in reversing the obesity epidemic.

Are the Marketplace people not going to comment on this??!! Or is there a place to see an apology that I am not finding.

The way I see it, obesity is partly a self-induced problem, part marketing, and part government.

The only blame I put on the government is how poor of a job that they have done explaining nutrition. Back in the 1970’s the cereal companies ran ads explaining cereal was part of a good breakfast along with juice, milk, toast and fruit. Eating just fruit for breakfast is enough for most people. If you remember reading the food pyramid you were to eat 5-6 helpings of this, 4-6 helpings of that but nobody knew what a helping was.

Then came supersize me; getting more market share for the stockholders and chain restaurants.

The result now is if you restrict or close all fast food joints and ban all poor nutrition products the result will be a BIG loss of jobs in the restaurants, health clubs, food and fast food industries, and in theory the healthcare industries too which would shrink because of the healthier population.

However, more than likely the result would be a fatter population from people being only able to afford the cheap and often low nutritional food products from being laid off.

The obesity epidemic is not solely a personal irresponsibility.
Mr. Wilson opposed New York City regulations of obesity-inducing portion sizes of sodas, suggesting instead that the government add money to the retail marketplace to induce us to buy healthy. While Mr. Wilson is entitled to his paid-for opinion, he is not entitled to his own facts. His approach would only work if irresponsibility in our buying choices were the sole cause of the obesity epidemic. The facts suggest otherwise. Americans are not simply more weight irresponsible than 35 years ago, or simply more gluttonous than Canada. The obesity epidemic is accelerating across the US and in many types of people. The causes of these increases in obesity across the US can not simply be poor judgment. It is more than that.
Where someone lives, what kind of food is available to them, and what genes they were given all affect whether or not they will become obese at some point. Research even suggests that there is a communicable component to obesity, as the people we are surrounded by matter. The research is clear, personal responsibility is necessary but insufficient to reverse the obesity epidemic. We can’t simply will our way out of this.
Mr. Wilson suggested that government public health regulation is nearly obsolete, only good for addressing communicable diseases. He ignores the fact there is a communicable component to obesity and that the public health regulations he supposedly supports, (meat packing sanitation and vaccination) were initially opposed by moneyed interests arguing it was each individual’s personal responsibility to avoid those diseases by more carefully choosing their friends and their meat. Sound familiar? Public health regulations are needed when corporate actors play a significant role in a crisis of the population’s health. This exactly describes the obesity/diabetes epidemic facing America.
Of course, regulations need to fit the problem. Regulating the sale of diabetic coma inducing quantities of soda in a single cup to smaller portion sizes is not the same as making every person wear a helmet in-case they trip and fall. Mr Wilson is disingenuous to equate obesity regulation with an imagined nanny-state helmet law. No-one is making a profit by making people trip and fall. The modern processed food industry on the other hand does profit from products that induce obesity.
Mr. Wilson is quick to point out the generic truth that some risks are worth the risk. But the only risk he is talking about is Americans becoming obese and footing the epidemic’s health bill when people buy obesity inducing giant sodas and processed food products. No risk for him or the food industry and all the risk for us. Mayor Bloomberg’s exact regulation of soda sizes may or may not be an ideal obesity reducing regulation but it is important that listeners hear the truth about the causes of obesity, and the need for regulation. Mr. Wilson’s idea for the government to throw more money into the processed food market that has no mechanism for protecting our health will only result in more of the same. His suggestion that we have only ourselves to blame may sound tidy, but is factually incorrect, self-serving for the food industry, and undermines those who struggle to tackle their and their families obesity. I challenge Marketplace Money to be more RESPONSIBLE in airing opinions that are at least grounded in truth and do more to share its commentator’s conflicts of interest.

Mr. Wilson's puts the obesity problem squarely on the shoulders of the individual when he says that it caused by "persona irresponsibility". This is a convenient argument for the marketing industry who spent $15 billion dollar in 2005 targeting children, including new born babies. With their "cradle to grave" marketing strategy and its "360 degree" format, marketers have surrounded kids in their homes, schools, on the internet, phones, video games, museums, and any place they may congregate. Marketers of all kinds, including those for fast foods, sodas, and other junk foods surround kids with advertisements that have been developed with laser precision to influence childrens' purchases and to get children to influence the purchases of their parents (via what marketers call the ""nag factor"). In designing their marketing strategies, child psychologists are employed by corporations for the purpose of exploiting developmental vulnerabilities of children for corporate gain.

Behind the "cradle to grave" marketing strategy is the idea of ownership: corporations figure if they can get you as a child and keep you, they own you as a customer. Moreover, corporations know that if they get you as a child, chances are pretty good that when you become an adult and have a family, you will deliver your children to them.

There is now a growing body of research showing causal relationships between exposure to marketing and adverse health effects. Other countries around the world, most notably France and the UK, have taken aggressive government action to regulate advertising of junk foods, including banning advertisements for foods high in fat, sugar, and salt that target children under 16 years of age.

Here in the US the youth marketing industry remains unregulated in spite of the adverse health consequences associated with it. Hiding behind the American ideal of rugged individualism and personal responibility, marketers confronted with the association between their successful campaigns and obesity, throw their hands up in the air and blame the very people they are effectively targeting as being personally irresponsible.

Moreover, the industry opposition to Mayor Bloomberg's proposal is not an effort to protect the right of the individual consumer. Such affectation belies the fact that the fast-food, junk-food industries don't want big government telling them or the citizens of this country what to do because they want to continue to be the ones telling you, controlling you, owning you from cradle to grave and, unlike France and the UK, they don't want big government getting in their way by looking out for the good of society.

So is the deal, "The government won't tell me what to eat/drink, and I won't expect the government to pay for my medical care"?

That ought to be worth a few hundred bucks off taxes.

I add my dismay to that of the commenters above, that you gave airtime to the CCF, which, far from being a consumer-oriented organization, was founded by the tobacco industry to fight smoking regulations, and is now also funded by the fast food and alcohol industries, and Big Ag, to lobby against consumer protection initiatives and legislation (in order to maximize profits). They actively campaign AGAINST a remarkable variety of organizations, ranging from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the Centers for Disease Control. They campaign against awareness of toxic mercury in fish!

I have no doubt that, had they been around when Public Health was doing its work to improve sanitation at meat-packing plants, they would have strongly opposed any regulations to prevent issues, any requirements to publicize problems, and any ameliorations needed to protect consumers (such as recalls of tainted hamburger). Not a good comparison for you to make, Mr. Wilson -- but then, I'm on to you.

In addition to my dismay at hearing this anti-consumer shill on a program I had heretofore enjoyed and trusted, I want to convey my surprise that you put him on! Don't you do research? If you just Google the CCF, you will get all kinds of stuff describing what they really are (you could start with Wikipedia). Try Googling "Center for Consumer Freedom exposed" - a raft of revealing sites and even a video comes up.

So, I guess I have a few choices here. I can assume -- but I would much prefer that you tell me -- that this is a one-time goof, that you didn't know, and that you will work hard never to make this sort of mistake again. Or, maybe this is simply the tip of an iceberg that I am able to recognize, and all your research is actually just as poor, which means I can't trust anything on the program. Or, worst possibility, you did know and that you are actually in favor of the hateful, harmful agenda of the CCF.

Glory be, that is a bad set of choices. I hope you will do us the favor of responding and let us know which it is.

"Obesity is a product of personal irresponsibility. No one is forcing us to eat too much junk food or sit on the couch all day long and watch television." Oh, is that what we do? The causes and contributing factors to obesity are far more complex than the diet industry wants us to believe. Diets fail 95% of the time due to biology, not psychology. And most of us, myself included, gain more weight after we diet and have reduced metabolic activity as a direct result of dieting. Current contributing factors to obesity that are being researched include pollution and plastics, as well as access to sugar and limited access to movement. I would think that a "research analyst" would have reviewed the current research.
I can find absolutely NOTHING that states what Mr. Wilson's qualifications for being "senior research analyst" are, not even on the CCF website. He sounded like a snarky teenager, which, considering that his job appears to be appearing in print (and now on air) as a self-righteous defender of industrial freedom, is probably exactly what he is.
By the way, one of the irresponsible things that I, and other overweight people, do is contribute to NPR every month, maybe I should be more responsible and rethink how I spend my money. Marketplace should be greatly in favor of that.

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