Tuesday, October 28, 2008

First the smoke police, now the fat police

It seems that smoking isn’t the only cause of preventable and premature death in Canada.

In a March 5, 2004 letter to then Minister of Finance, Ralph Goodale, CSPI asked for a funding commitment of $100 million to improve the overall health of Canadians and help reduce the incidence of avoidable disease. The letter was signed by Bill Jeffery, National Coordinator of CSPI which has offices in Ottawa and Washington.

CSPI, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, is claiming that as many Canadians die prematurely each year from “diet and inactivity related diseases” as die from smoking. Health Canada’s most recent study estimates 37,209 (somewhere between 31,210 and 44,775) smoking related deaths in Canada each year.

Jeffery’s letter claims, among other things: “Concrete action is necessary to help reduce the $6 billion to $10 billion economic toll and 25,000 to 47,000 premature deaths attributable to diet and inactivity-related disease annually in Canada.

Sound familiar? It should. These are the same scare mongering tactics used to persuade government to impose punitive levels of taxation on tobacco and to implement draconian smoking bans on the smoking public. In fact, many of the solutions being proposed for the “obesity epidemic” appear to have been taken directly from the anti-smoker’s playbook.

For example, CSPI wants the federal government to underwrite a massive publicity campaign, “purchasing advertising space to promote nutrition, physical activity, and healthy body image messages on nationally televised TV and radio programs.” Naturally, implementation of these educational campaigns would be left to local non-profit health organizations.

They also want to impose sin taxes on unhealthful foods (high calorie, low nutrient) in much the same way as tobacco and alcohol. “In short, federal and provincial rules governing the taxation of food require immediate reform to ensure that they reflect health promotion priorities of the Government.”

Other recommendations include adjusting tax deductions for advertising so that companies promoting healthy, nutritional food are permitted greater deductions that those peddling junk food.

There are also suggestions to ban advertisements directed at children during those periods when they are most likely to be watching television. The advertising ban would apply to candy bars, breakfast cereals, soda pop, etc. They would also apply to video games, ads for television programs or anything else which might promote a sedentary lifestyle.

In the UK, even more severe measures are being considered.

The Daily Mail recently claimed school lunchboxes could soon be monitored to ensure children are eating healthy meals. If a lunch packed by a parent is thought to contain too much fat or sugar, they could be sent warning letters or have their child's meal confiscated.

A report commissioned by the British government from a think tank called the Foresight Project, has apparently suggested everything from “fat quota” ration cards for regulating individuals’ food purchases to shipping overweight teens off to government-mandated fat camps.

A few months back, the British Food Standards Agency rejected using cigarette-style health warnings on cheese, butter and whole milk. But, remember, warning labels on cigarette packages weren’t accepted immediately either.

In New York state (among others), government mandated “calorie counts” on restaurant menus has already led to class action lawsuits in the US for “misrepresenting nutritional content of menu items.” Some fast food outlets, including MacDonald’s, have been the target of lawsuits by individuals claiming fast foods were responsible for their obesity.

Obesity, like smoking, may be a legitimate health concern. But, should private business concerns be subjected to the threat of legal action over the eating habits of their clientele? No one forces an individual to eat at MacDonald’s or buy high fat or sugar rich foods at the supermarket.

Many people need help to control their weight. But, should the obese or overweight be subjected to the same kind of de-normalization and stigmatization as smokers?

Several freedom of choice groups have been warning that the war on smokers was just the first step down a slippery slope leading to the erosion of individual civil liberties. Few people paid any attention; after all, who wants to listen to a bunch of whining smokers.

But, they should. They might be the next target of the health scare professionals who approach each new health concern with fanatical zeal.

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