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Fast--and fatty--food comes cheap in America, including at this McDonald's location in Bridgeport, Conn. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Killing Us Sweetly

Conservatives’ role in the growing burden of American obesity.

BY Theo Anderson

The obesity problem is a profound challenge to the fundamental tenet of American conservatism.

Conservatives interested in defining and defending American exceptionalism should really love our waistlines. The United States may not lead the world in much anymore, but its citizens are easily among the fattest in the industrialized world. And there is no end in sight to our growing size. Our political system, paralyzed by a lethal combination of conservative dogma and corporate interests, is completely unprepared to face the realities underlying America’s obesity epidemic.

One-third of the country’s adults were classified as obese in 2010. That’s double the adult obesity rate in 1980. The state with the highest overall obesity rate in 1995 was Mississippi. Its rate at the time–19 percent–would now be the lowest in the nation. Mississippi’s obesity rate remains America’s highest, at more than 34 percent, while Colorado has the lowest rate, at 20 percent.

Those numbers will almost certainly continue to rise, and it’s plausible that half of America’s adult population will be obese within the next two to three decades.

The medical costs related to obesity are enormous, because it’s closely linked with diabetes–a chronic disease requiring costly, long-term treatment. In 1995, only four states had a diabetes rate above 6 percent. But as rates of obesity have soared, so has the incidence of diabetes. All but eight states now have a diabetes rate above 7 percent.

The spiraling rates of obesity and diabetes pose a dire challenge to America’s healthcare system. In a study released in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that direct and indirect medical costs related to obesity run to $147 billion every year. In a press release that accompanied the report, the director of the CDC said that “it is critical that we take effective steps to contain and reduce the enormous burden of obesity on our nation.”

Well, good luck with that.

What is even more remarkable than the rising rates of obesity over the past few decades is the total lack of political will in the United States to address the problem–though we find huge sums of time, money, energy and manpower to wage a failed “war on drugs,” the singular achievement of which has been to give us the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The drug war shows, if nothing else, that we are capable of taking some health issues seriously. Yet we’re unwilling to engage the obesity problem in any serious way. America is poised, in fact, to become truly exceptional: the first empire in human history to eat itself into oblivion.

A super-sized world tries to downsize

The United States is just the most extreme case of a growing worldwide problem. Obesity has risen to epidemic proportions in much of the developed world, as America’s nutritional model–food that’s cheap, tasty and loaded with fat, salt and sugar–has spread.

There are no simple solutions, and no one has yet found good answers, because the problem is complex and has roots branching in several directions. Heredity plays a role in obesity, as do socio-economic and cultural factors, the influence of marketing and media, and so on. There’s no solving it by getting at the root of the problem.

But some countries have at least begun experimenting with solutions.

Though France’s obesity rate is less than half that of America’s (15 percent), several years ago the French government began taking aggressive action. France began requiring junk-food advertisers to put public-service messages in their ads, emphasizing the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly. Now it’s phasing in an anti-obesity campaign with the backing of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The campaign has three components: medical care, research and prevention. France’s Ministry of Higher Education and Research has already committed nearly $200 million to obesity-related research. Preventative measures have also been implemented, including a two-cent tax on cans of soda. Half the revenue will be used to combat obesity.

In 2006, England began progressively implementing a ban on ads featuring foods high in fat, sugar and salt that are aimed at children under 16. In October, England’s prime minister, David Cameron, floated the idea of imposing a “fat tax” to help fight the nation’s obesity problem, pointing to “how bad things have got in America” as a cautionary tale.

Notably, both Cameron and Sarkozy lead the conservative parties in their countries.

America’s anti-obesity plan: Just say no

Meanwhile, in the United States, obesity has become like global warming: Actual evidence has little relevance in political debates, because what’s at stake is ideology. The anti-tax and anti-regulation fervor of America’s conservative movement makes taxing and regulating unhealthy food all but impossible here. But the issue goes deeper than that.

It turns out that the obesity problem is a profound challenge to the fundamental tenet of American conservatism. If progressivism’s most basic belief is that we are in this together–that our fates are interconnected–conservatism cherishes “rugged individualism” above all else. This is why evangelical Christianity and political conservatism are so compatible: Both focus on individual human will.

But none of the evidence regarding America’s obesity problem confirms or conforms to the bedrock faith of American conservatism. The only solution it offers is that people should eat less and exercise more. That’s good advice, as far as it goes, but conservatism has little to say about the systemic factors behind the problem–about the agricultural subsidies that make unhealthy foods fantastically cheap to produce; about the externalized medical costs associated with those foods; about the role of poverty, culture or heredity in the rising obesity statistics; about the power of marketing to shape consumer preferences; about the fact that the nation’s most conservative region, the South, is also the fattest.

It’s clear that there’s a lot more behind obesity than just a failure of willpower. It’s equally clear that the American political system is inept at addressing the problem, because doing so would demand the ability to deal with complexity in a mature way. It would demand, too, a conservatism that is more interested in advancing Americans’ well-being than in defending its own ideology.

That brand of conservatism is moribund in modern America. And it has become startlingly clear over the past several months how aggressively conservatives are willing to oppose anti-obesity initiatives.

In April, the Interagency Working Group–a collaboration of four federal agencies, including the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture–released the results of a study that had been commissioned by Congress in 2009. In the report, the IWG proposed a set of guidelines for the food and broadcasting industries to follow in marketing food to children. Though the proposed guidelines were voluntary–the agencies involved in the IWG have no authority to create relevant regulations–the blowback was fierce. Corporations opposed the guidelines, naturally, but conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation did the really heavy lifting in opposing them.

In a blog post and e-mail with the headline “Food Regulators Out of Control,” Heritage claimed that the government was “starting to infringe on the free speech rights of advertisers.” The IWG, it said, had “delivered a plan to drastically censor food advertisers … simply because the ‘nanny state’ is uncomfortable with what they are selling.” In response to such criticism, the IWG agreed in October to weaken its already toothless guidelines.

Obesity epidemic 1, Truth 0.

The only brake on advertising unhealthy food to children remains industry self-regulation. How’s that working out? A recent report by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that soda ads aimed at children had doubled between 2008 and 2010–this despite industry pledges to reduce them.

And so it goes in the land of the free and the home of the brave: Nothing will slow our march toward total obesity. Insane self-subversion? American exceptionalism in all its splendor? Whatever you call it, one thing is certain: Yes, we would like fries with that.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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