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The Politics of Fat



Anti-tobacco lawyer John Banzhaf is presently building more solid test cases against food corporations for knowingly selling products that are injurious to consumers' health. Banzhaf will send a letter to McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken this month, demanding that they label their food as containing substances that may be as addictive as nicotine.

At the same time, there is talk of imposing a "fat tax" and/or forcing manufacturers to put health warnings on certain foods, similar to the warnings on tobacco products. McDonalds is apparently feeling the pressure. They have recently issued a request to their meat suppliers to reduce the quantity of antibiotics in their meat, perhaps a pre-emptive measure, intended to demonstrate concern about the health impact of their products in case of future lawsuits.

Many issues are bundled in the politics of fat: government responsibility versus individual responsibility; free enterprise versus government regulation; industrial profit versus public health. A fair debate is made more difficult because the media, influenced by the enormous revenue from fast food corporations, typically treat the issue in a derisory fashion: It's all about greedy lawyers, a sue-happy culture and irresponsible consumers. Yet there is more to the fat issue than is suggested by these pre-digested media reductions.

Because it affects people on so many levels, fat is moving to the center-stage of American politics. First there is the issue of health. 36% of Americans are overweight and about two thirds of these are obese. Obesity greatly increases the individual's risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Diet is so important to health that 80% of heart disease and cancer could be eliminated by simple changes in our eating habits, such as reducing meat consumption and increasing fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. Yet, despite these known facts, in 1996 only 22.7% of American adults ate the recommended five servings a day of fruit and vegetables.

The economic consequences of fat in the American diet are equally dramatic. The medical costs of obesity were conservatively estimated at $51.6 billion in 1994. By now this figure would at least have doubled. More recent studies show that obesity is associated with higher costs for chronic health problems than either smoking or drinking. Only aging is associated with higher medical costs. Heart disease, the number one killer in America, is closely linked to diet, and cost over $300 billion in medical care in 2002. The medical cost of diabetes, also directly linked to obesity, rose from $44 billion in 1997 to $91.8 billion in 2002. These figures do not include the hundreds of billions lost in American productivity every year to fat-related health problems.