America the FAT
The economy may be down, but obesity continues
By Lee Drutman

How times have changed.

It used to be that a few extra chins was a sign of prosperity, a rarified symbol of wealth. Now it's a national health crisis with costs estimated into the billions.

According to Surgeon General David Satcher, three out of five Americans are overweight. This year, 300,000 Americans will experience a death hastened or even caused by obesity. Experts predict this number to continue to inflate, soon surpassing tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death in this country.

So, how did things get so bad?

Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here and blame the fast-food industry, which feeds one in four Americans on any given day with its fatty burgers and greasy fries and corn syrupy soft drinks, according to Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation.

I'm going to take a chance and blame television, which consumes four hours of the average Amercian's day with such scintillating programs as Temptation Island, America's Funniest Home Videos, and the Spanish-language favorite, Uga Uga, according to TV Free America.

And for good measure, I'm even going to blame the automobile, which has made our life so easy that we don't even have to walk anywhere anymore. Meanwhile, only one in five Americans gets all sweaty from a good old-fashioned work-out on a regular basis, according to NPD Research.

The crisis is especially acute among our young, where the number of overweight children is up about 50 percent in the last 15 years, to about 14 percent. Oddly enough, the last 15 years have also seen a massive boom in the amount of programming on television as well as an explosion in the popularity of video games. The average kid now spends three hours daily in front of the television, according to TV Free America. Video games are now an $8.2 billion a year industry, even more than the $7.75 billion dollars in annual movie sales (another sedentary activity), according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. So, in short, kids are sitting home playing video games and watching TV when they could be out playing soccer or something.

Meanwhile, fast food restaurants aggressively court children with in-store playgrounds and happy meals featuring the latest toy, soda companies ceaselessly target school districts for exclusive deals to install vending machines, and junk food manufacturers advertise incessantly during children's television shows.

The easiest thing, of course, is to blame our schools. And that's exactly what Surgeon General Satcher does in his report. He recommends our schools to jam more physical education into their cirricula and to cut the fats and up the vitamins in school lunches. Well, duh.

The second easiest thing to do is to blame communities for a lack of parks and sidewalks and places where people can exercise freely. Satcher does this too.

The hard thing to do is to blame the fast food industry, to blame television, to blame junk food. This Satcher does, but only very weakly. For example, he suggests that the restaurant industry provide 'reasonable portion sizes.' But is a quarter-pounder with cheese really an unreasonable portion?

So what can be done? Could we treat fast food companies the way we treat, say, tobacco companies, limiting their ability to advertise and requiring health warnings to come on the package of every bacon cheeseburger? Could the family of a long-time McDonald's customer sue after he dies early of a heart-attack brought on by too many Big Macs? What if food packaging required nutrition information on the front of the box instead of the side? Could we limit the amount of programming on television to certain hours? These are enticing possibilities.

But not likely ones.

One reasonable step is to educate Americans more fully about the choices they make every day, how just 30 minutes of walking a few days a week can make a real difference and how a bucket of fried chicken can ruin their life. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and billions of dollars of health care costs are at stake here.

But the odd thing is that many Americans are already concerned with their weight, constantly fretting over added pounds and frantically trying newfangled diets. And when asked, almost half of Americans say they watch too much television. So why the disconnect?

I'll tell you why. We are constantly subjected to incessant ads by fast food and junk food companies, ads designed to appeal to our hunger sensations, not to our better judgment.

Television and its $40 billion a year in advertising gives us a milion sex- and violence-laden incentives to stay seated, but few to go out for a walk. Anybody who's been on a diet or an exercise regimen can tell you it takes some willpower. And not all of us have the willpower to withstand constant marketing assaults to us to stay seated and enjoy our Big Mac.

Until we are free of those constant marketing assaults, winning the battle of the bulge will likely be a losing fight.

"But if all else fails, you could always eat less and exercise more."