The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has devoted its latest issue to articles focusing on obesity. Among them is a commentary authored by Thomas Farley, who is affiliated with New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which recently adopted a prohibition on sugarsweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces. Titled “The Role of Government in Preventing Excess Calorie Consumption,” the opinion piece calls for “governments to regulate food products that harm the most people, simultaneously encourage food companies to voluntarily produce and market healthful products, and then provide information to consumers in ways that facilitate their choosing healthful products.” He argues that New York City has taken this approach and compares it to the city’s action on smoking, which has purportedly led to a 35-percent decline in smoking since 2002.

Farley claims that industry opposes New York City’s portion rule by portraying it as a “limit on consumer choices,” but says that “[t]he sale of huge portions is driven by the food industry, not by consumer demand.” He compares the regulation to restaurant health and safety inspections, seat belt mandates and laws prohibiting the use of lead in paint. “None of the health problems prevented by these actions kill nearly as many people each year as obesity does,” he states, adding, “Although the idea of government action to prevent obesity by regulating portion size is new, this action is easily justifiable, is manageable by the dynamic food industry, and will be effective in preventing needless deaths.” See Journal of the American Medical Association, September 19, 2012.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal recently invited New York University Nutrition Professor Marion Nestle, Cornell University Marketing Professor Brian Wansink and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Michael Tanner to discuss “What Role Should Government Play in Combating Obesity?” Nestle indicated that “government is up to its ears in policies that promote obesity” and claimed that “[t]he food, beverage and restaurant industries collectively spend roughly $16 billion a year to promote sales through advertising agencies, perhaps $2 billion of that targeted at children.” According to Nestle, “[o]n ethical grounds alone, government intervention is essential.”

Tanner said, “If the state is going to abrogate . . . self-ownership, the burden is on it to show both that its goals are necessary and that they cannot be achieved in any other way. To claim otherwise is to give the state all manner of control over our lives—indeed to reduce us to little more than functionaries of the state.” Wansink observed that “people don’t behave like we expect” when it comes to food and thus, that government efforts can do “more damage than we can stand.” Wansink also said, “The biggest disservice that public health has ever done to Americans is to make them believe that they and their kids were fat because the schools, the food companies, the fast-food restaurants and the government made them that way. It stripped people of their hope and empowerment.” He opined that government’s role is to “give people hope and . . . the tools to make it happen.” See The Wall Street Journal, September 18, 20121.