Thanks to money from the $10 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund, Oklahoma City residents now have new bike lanes, walking paths and an Olympic rowing complex. But will any of this do any good?
In response to the obesity epidemic overtaking his community, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City has embraced the program funded through the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, as Sabrina Tavernise reported in The New York Times last week.
Many experts believe that measures like these will not reduce the obesity rate all by themselves. Government will have to intervene, they argue, whether by enacting taxes on sodas, regulating marketing to children or reforming agricultural subsidies.
Of course, critics will speak of a nanny state that has no business dictating the American diet. They point to personal choice, arguing that every consumer has a right to eat whatever she wants, however it affects her health. They point to personal responsibility, arguing that the overweight and obese, who make up two-thirds of the American population, just have to learn to exercise some self-restraint and say “no.” Critics of government intervention also point to the self-correcting mechanisms of the marketplace which are supposed to induce Big Food to respond to public concern over obesity by, for example, introducing healthier products and developing its own rules for front-of-pack labeling.
On Personal Responsibility
It’s true that every consumer chooses what she wants to eat, and no one’s making her eat anything she doesn’t want to. But she’s certainly urged to buy the latest meal replacement bar through millions of dollars in advertising, greeted by it at the checkout line in a convenient to-go package and offered it at an introductory price that can’t be beat.
Ours is an obesogenic environment, one conducive to “passive overconsumption” with the availability of more and more hyperpalatable, “processed, affordable, and effectively marketed” foods every year, say the authors of one article in the Lancet’s Obesity Series. Passive overconsumption is a predictable outcome of an environment overloaded with food. Several studies have found that this excessive supply of calories is “more than sufficient” to explain the rise in obesity in America as well as in the U.K., and one epidemiologist notes that the “excessive consumption of food occurs in ways that defy personal insight or are below individual awareness.”
In order to reverse the obesity epidemic, the environment has to change. And against Big Food, only government has the reach and the resources to implement the systemic change required to promote an environment that supports rather than undermines public health.
Next: On the Right to Personal Choice
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