In the latest episode in New York City's war against obesity, we have a standoff between Big Government and Big Macs.
This week, City Councilman Joel Rivera, a Democrat of the Bronx, and the chairman of the Health Committee of the City Council, recommended that the city use zoning laws to limit the number of fast food restaurants in neighborhoods where obesity is prevalent. His proposal was endorsed by NYC Assistant Health Commissioner Lynn Silver who noted that restricting zones where burgers, fries, and the like were sold was a "perfect example" of how government could curb the obesity epidemic.
Clearly, this is alarming news for those who cherish a free society wherein people make individual choices and commercial establishments exist to meet consumer demands. But more to the point: reducing the number of McDonald's-like venues in the City will likely do nothing to lessen the prevalence of obesity. The rising rate of obesity in our city, as in the rest of America, is a real threat to public health. But simpleminded government solutions, such as the one proposed Rivera, will be more of a hindrance than a help.
-- From a practical point of view, people will just travel a bit to get the food they want if it is not available in their immediate neighborhood -- and don't count on them jogging in order to get there.
-- The Rivera proposal assumes that "fast food" is uniquely fat-boosting -- when in reality, you can rack up as many calories at home with a spread such as cheeseburgers and baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, followed by apple pie a la mode. It is not the fast food establishments and the food they serve that makes people fat. Obesity results from the over consumption of calories from all sources combined with the failure to exercise enough to burn off the calories.
-- The primary way we can slim down fat New Yorkers is to teach them about balancing calories taken in (through eating) with calories burned off (through exercise). We could also encourage the food industry to assist them in ways that have yet to be seriously discussed, namely by using food technology to reduce the caloric content of commonly enjoyed foods while maintaining taste and texture. For example, we now know how to produce, through biotechnology, a potato that is exceptionally high in starch so that it absorbs very little oil. Since we have a national passion for French fries, a dramatic reduction in the caloric load of each serving could really have a significant impact on the "calories in" side of the equation.
While Big Government was enormously successful in combating infectious diseases with regulatory interventions - such as mandating water chlorination and vaccinations to prevent diseases like polio, diphtheria, and typhoid -- in 2006 the greatest threats to the health of New Yorkers are chronic diseases, most of them lifestyle-related and not easily altered by laws.
"Mayor Bloomberg, M.D." and his colleagues on the City Council will not be successful in preventing obesity by restricting burger joints, taxing "junk food," and banning food advertising -- all measures that are currently being considered here and in other parts of our fat land.
Obesity is a serious health threat, but public health officials and their counterparts in government should abandon these ineffective and intrusive measures. Intensified educational programs that teach people how to follow diet and exercise plans would be more benign and effective than bossing them around and closing their favorite restaurants.