PAUL GIGOT: Here's a sign of the times: the Cookie Monster learning that he should not eat cookies whenever he feels like it, and ought to try fruit more often. And another sign of the times: Kraft announced this week that after 93 years it's changing the middle of America's favorite cookies to get rid of trans fat. And the government is getting mixed reviews for changing this food pyramid to 12 versions of this pyramid, emphasizing exercise as well as fruit and whole grains. Only about four percent of Americans eat according to the principles of the old pyramid. Since it was introduced in 1992, obesity rates have gone up. The question is whether there's anything more the government can or should be doing about obesity, or whether it's an issue of personal responsibility. Here's correspondent Celeste Ford.
CELESTE FORD: Measuring the body mass index, or BMI, of public school students might sound drastic. But in Arkansas it's the law. Every year, the schools take the height and weight of each child. The state makes a calculation and the district mails parents the report, a letter explaining whether their child's weight is normal or a health risk.
Eleven year old Sean Chaperon is among the 38 percent of Arkansas' students found to be obese or on the verge.
CELESTE FORD: Are you scared?
SEAN: Uh-hmm, because I could become a diabetic.
CELESTE FORD: For this family, the BMI report was a wake-up call.
MICHELLE CHAPERON: And your heart just starts to sink as you hear that, or read that your child's obese. I didn't want to fail as a mother, and I didn't want to think I had failed him.
CELESTE FORD: The percentage of overweight children has more than tripled since the 1970s, and among adults obesity is the nation's fastest-growing cause of disease. The medical and other related costs are staggering: 117 billion dollars per year according to the federal government.
JAY BRADFORD: There's a tremendous price tag on obesity, and it just doesn't go away.
CELESTE FORD: State Representative Jay Bradford was key in developing the BMI Law. He says Arkansas could no longer afford to be one of the fattest states.
CELESTE FORD: Isn't the state of Arkansas attempting to regulate behavior?
JAY BRADFORD: Of course we are. Good for us.
CELESTE FORD: What happened to personal responsibility?
JAY BRADFORD: It didn't work.
CELESTE FORD: Bradford says the Arkansas law has become a model for other states struggling to find a solution. The federal government seems more certain of what it should do about obesity. U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona says the government's primary role is to educate, not legislate.
SURGEON GENERAL RICHARD CARMONA: We're largely a health illiterate country. Passing policy that would direct government to do something without a citizenry that understands, probably is a waste of time.
CELESTE FORD: The Surgeon General says more federal regulations are a last resort. But in years past, government often used its clout to change personal behaviors that hurt society. Limits on sales and marketing have been used to curb smoking and drinking. Public awareness campaigns. But even as obesity has ballooned into an epidemic, the Bush administration has shown little interest in telling Americans how to eat.
CELESTE FORD: Why not regulate?
SURGEON GENERAL RICHARD CARMONA: Because we're in a democracy. People have the ability to make choices. If we educate them, we hope that most of the people will make the right choice on behalf of their children, their families, and themselves.
MARGOT WOOTAN: This administration needs to do more than just talk. They need to take meaningful actions.
CELESTE FORD: Margot Wootan directs nutrition policy at the Center for Science and the Public Interest.
MARGOT WOOTAN: We're not talking about the government entering into arenas that they've never been in. The government's already there. We're just asking that they do a better job.
CELESTE FORD: She says the federal government could do something about obesity by using regulations already on the books. For example, the USDA sets nutrition standards for school lunches, but does little to enforce them or to limit junk food in vending machines. The FDA oversees food labeling, but does not require fast food restaurants to post similar information. And the FTC regulates TV marketing, but lacks the authority to curb seven billion dollars of food ads that target children.
Those who oppose government regulation point to the recent decision by the nation's largest food company, Kraft. It announced plans to phase out ads aimed at children under age 12. That means fewer TV spots for some favorites. It's self-regulation, and according to Kraft, good business.
MARK BERLIND: We've taken a voluntary step, on our own, that strikes a nice middle ground between those who say that nothing should be done and those who think that there shouldn't be marketing at all.
CELESTE FORD: Kraft's move is also considered a pre-emptive strike. Its sister company is Philip Morris, the tobacco giant well known for fending off class action law suits.
Back in Arkansas, prompted by his BMI report, Sean's parents sought treatment for him at the Arkansas Children's Hospital. Today he's reading food labels, and spending less time in front of the TV.
DARRELL CHAPERON: For me, I thought there's another reason for the government to stick their nose in where it doesn't belong, you know. They're getting personal now. But I'm glad that they did come out with this, because our son was headed toward possibly getting diabetes without us even realizing it.
CELESTE FORD: The Surgeon General said more regulations are a last resort.
MARGOT WOOTAN: I think we're at the last resort. How much longer do they want to wait before they really begin to address nutrition and obesity.
CELESTE FORD: Ultimately, combating obesity is a personal responsibility. What lawmakers must decide is the level of government responsibility for helping individuals make good decisions about their health. For THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT, I'm Celeste Ford.
PAUL GIGOT: We're joined now by Dorothy Rabinowitz, a columnist and member of the editorial board. Dorothy, 12 states are now considering the Arkansas practice of weighing students and telling their parents. What do you think of that?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think it is a measure of where we are today, and in short it is grotesque. I have to say that if you think of what it means to people to think about being regulated -- there used to be a time when the word "personal responsibility," and still does, had a kind of political odor about it. It was a kind of oppressive idea. But I cannot think of a better short-cut to the meaning: what is it that will keep you from swallowing French fries and those huge tons of saturated, butter-saturated popcorn that destroy everybody sitting around you and cause homicidal feelings, well-justified, than personal responsibility.
Now I wouldn't want the government to arrest those people in the movie theaters. I do not want them to make legislation about this, simply because it is a reflection of where we've come. In the swinging seventies, and in the even more swinging sixties, you would not have imagined what we are listening to today about what can be thought of as government policy, making people eat the right foods. Look, you don't mind education. You don't mind big charts telling people this is what happens to your arteries, plaque. But getting them to stop eating that food by teaching them. And does it ever occur to anybody that there are things going on outside of a lunch room -- like dinner and breakfast and all the other eating that makes children fat? End of story.
PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy, some of the same educators who want to tell parents that their kids are too fat, don't want to tell parents that their kids can't read or can't do the multiplication table.
Jason, let's get to this issue of just how serious obesity is. Because one of the roles that Dorothy said for government, maybe properly, is education. Are they telling people what's really going on?
JASON RILEY: Well, that's a good question, because what really helped fuel this craze was a Center for Disease Control report that came out last year, that said something like 400,000 Americans die every year from excess weight.
PAUL GIGOT: And that's a federal agency?
JASON RILEY: Yes. That number has since been revised down to 26,000. And the authors of the report admit that their methodology was flawed. Now, more than 26,000 people die every year in this country from car crashes. So the extent to which this really is an epidemic needs to be questioned. Of course, obesity is a preventable cause of death. And to that extent it needs to be taken seriously, especially with regard to children. But the press loves an epidemic, real or imagined. And they've run with this one.
PAUL GIGOT: On this issue of what the government should do, Dan, what's the role?
DAN HENNINGER: Well, that's a good question. There has to be a basis for the role. The CDC study was about people dying from obesity. Now the leading causes of death are, in order: tobacco, infection, motor vehicle accidents, and firearms. In at least three of those, you can look at the dead person and said, "They died from the infection," "They got killed in the auto accident." With something like obesity, it isn't so clear. And I think one lesson of the CDC study is that the scientists involved here ought to, as the head of the CDC said, have a little bit more humility about their data. Because if we're going to embark on a government program, it's going to (a) have costs, and you are in fact going to be telling people what to do. Well you ought to be having some pretty strong evidence for doing that. And in the area of medicine and this sort of causality that epidemiologists deal with, it's never very clear what's going on inside these studies.
PAUL GIGOT: Who's driving this? Like everything in America, there are promoters of certain ideas. And obviously some of these might be commercial. People will benefit if we talk about this a lot.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: What's the latest political orthodoxy? Really, it's combined with the allure of media coverage, it's combined with a general do-good-ism that has always been a strong central part of American political life. And as you mentioned, tobacco. Can there be -- to repeat, but it's now a serious cliche -- anybody outside of somebody living in Pluto who didn't know that tobacco kills you as early as the 1960s, if not in the seventies?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, 1964 is when they put the warning on the cigarette packs.
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: And you can still find personal injury lawyers and huge class action settlements. So if you are willing to ride with that delusion, that education is what matters and if only people knew what is so obvious.
JASON RILEY: Dorothy's right. You've got a combination of factors here. You have the do-gooders, the sort of nanny types, the consumer interest groups that feel Americans are either too stupid or too ignorant to realize what they're putting in their mouths. But you've also got a broken civil justice system that involves plaintiffs' lawyers who either are unable or unwilling to police themselves, and judges who refuse to talk these frivolous suits out. And the parallel with tobacco is exactly right. The people who made billions and billions of dollars in the nineties on these tobacco lawsuits -- at least the ones who didn't retire on that money -- are now looking for a new subject, a new target. And they have found the food industry, which also has a deep pocket, and also has millions of consumers that can be grouped together in class action suits.
PAUL GIGOT: We don't have very much time here, but I wanted to ask Dan a question. In my observation, fat does not know an ideology, right or left. What are the politics of this issue? Or are there any?
DAN HENNINGER: I think there could be politics in this, especially if we embark on an enormous government program to control people's behavior. There is something in politics called the "leave us alone coalition." And they are basically libertarians who feel the government just has too much stuff. Every time you turn in one direction or another you're supposed to respond to something. You know, I suspect there are more than a few fat liberals out there who, when the government starts telling them what to eat, are going to be joining the "leave us alone coalition."