Freedom Line

Classifying obesity as a disease officially changes hedonism from an individual imperfection into a societal burden.

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Fattening Government, Slimming Choice

By George Hawley

Earlier this year, the federal government discovered yet another crisis of catastrophic proportions — we’re too fat. Bowing to incessant media coverage spurred on by those who continually insist that the "sky is falling," the U.S. government officially recognized that America is weighed-down in an "obesity crisis." And, what’s more, we can’t save ourselves, at least not without the help of those in Washington, or so they say.

Thus, through what seemed to be an innocuous observation, the federal government promised an ominous intrusion into all our lives. By recognizing obesity as a disease, the Feds took their first definitive steps toward inserting bureaucrats into individual decisions about what we eat and drink, assuring us that the federal government would help us change our "waist-full" ways.

Specifically, Medicare authorities announced in July that all language stating that obesity is not a disease would be removed from the Medicare coverage manual, thereby allowing Medicare payments for obesity treatments. With this change, Medicare will soon underwrite diet programs, behavioral counseling and stomach stapling.

Ignoring all of the pseudo-scientific research that tries to absolve overweight individuals from bearing any responsibility for their size, we should be specific about what obesity really is. Obesity is the inevitable consequence of eating too much and exercising too little. Although saying so violates the sacred tenets of political correctness, obesity is the result of two deadly sins: gluttony and sloth. Classifying obesity as a disease flies in the face of this rather obvious, though unpopular, understanding.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a disease is "a pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes, such as infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms." Using such a definition to account for obesity implies that an individual bears no responsibility for being overweight, as though obesity just randomly happens.


Despite whatever ludicrous excuses the crusading special interests and avaricious trial lawyers may come up with to shift the blame elsewhere, obesity is still a matter of self-control. No one is forced to eat more calories than they burn, and overweight people can see dramatic improvements in their health and appearance by changing their lifestyles.

Nevertheless, the new talking points used in the obesity debate demonstrate just how far we have wandered from medical and scientific reality. Obesity is now dubbed an "epidemic," a contagion needful of containment. But being overweight is not like contracting the flu or the bubonic plague. It results from a lifetime of individual choices. And just because a large number of people choose to over-indulge and under-exert does not make those choices everyone else’s fault.

Using our tax dollars to pay for weight loss sends the wrong message loud and clear: "Obesity is not your fault. You cannot lose weight on your own, so we will spend whatever it takes to help you." If government picks up the tab for overeating, then for what will individuals be held accountable? Personal responsibility will be unnecessary, at the cost of individual freedom. After all, since obesity has been officially dubbed as too big for individuals to deal with on their own, Big Brother will undoubtedly come to our aid, every single one of us, limiting all our choices.

It is only a matter of time before the public health crusaders, trial lawyers and state governments facing budget shortfalls unleash their fury on "big food." And, if the assault on eating continues to mimic the attacks on asbestos, silicone breast implants, tobacco, then our right to eat and drink what we want will be eroded in a drive to advance what others believe is for "the common good." Quite simply, if government cannot convince Americans to eat healthy, it can force us to do so through new taxes and lawsuits.

Soon (if we aren’t already) we will hear that the fast food chains addicted us to grease; that restaurants purposely marketed kid’s meals to impressionable children; that cartoon characters made overeating "cool"; and that nutritional information was purposely withheld from the public. Trial lawyers are already arguing that overweight people are helpless victims of everyone’s favorite whipping boy, corporate America, while aggressively seeking jackpot justice to stop the food industry from engaging in the unconscionable practice of giving American consumers exactly what they want.

As stated famously more than two centuries ago, free people have an unalienable right to make their own choices. But they will not stay free for long if they demand that others must bear the responsibility for their own decisions. Classifying obesity as a disease officially changes hedonism from an individual imperfection into a societal burden. As a result, our limited government will soon be intruding into yet another aspect of our private lives, and we will find ourselves with fewer choices to make and fewer ways to make them.

George Hawley is a Research Associate at the Center for Individual Freedom. He is a senior at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington.

[Posted September 15, 2004]

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