Sunday, June 09, 2002

The Next Holy Crusade:
Banishing the Fat Merchants from the Temple of Public Health

In today's Washington Post, two university professors bring the hammer down on fast food companies, soft drink producers and snack providers. Their op-ed is part of a fairly new but long-predicted campaign to do to Frito-Lay and McDonald's what was done to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Professors Brownell and Ledwig are worried about the negative health effects of increasing childhood obesity and, not surprisingly, see a shadowy corporate conspiracy as the villainous cause. They aren't modest about their demands, either: in a page taken directly from the anti-tobacco campaign, they call for and end to all food advertising and marketing campaigns directed at children, among other things.

This is, of course, exactly what many opponents of the war on tobacco told us would happen. The key to these kind of nanny-state regulations are heartfelt appeals to well-being of The Children. Tell the world that you're trying to protect the poor, vulnerable children of the nation and your argument becomes impervious to criticism. Anyone who opposes you is clearly trying to hurt children, and we don't want anything to do with people like that, do we? In 1997 when The Nation published a story about the evils of caffeine and the shocking way soft drink companies were marketing to children, the argument seemed laughable. Certainly we would never see federal regulations, class action lawsuits and coerced corporate settlements over the health effects of Doritos and Mountain Dew. If the prestige of the Post editorial page is any sign, we move closer to that scenario every day.

I have a particularly prescient editorial cartoon from 1917 on the wall of my office. It features a jug of whiskey being escorted to jail by Uncle Sam. As he walks by with a ball and chain labeled "W.C.T.U.," his fellow indulgences snicker short-sightedly from the sidewalk: the cigar, nut sundae and stick of chewing gum wave him humorously on his way to the dock. The jug, knowing his predicament all too well, shouts over "You fellers needn't feel so all-fired cocky; they'll be after you next." And it's come to it at last. We had Prohibition and now the Byzantine array of rules and taxes that followed it, the tobacco avengers have smacked down the nicotine industry, and the attack on the makers of the other sweet treats is just shifting into gear. Guard your pork rinds well, fellow citizens. They may be your last.


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