Published Tuesday, November 17, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News


Bit by bit, Americans are giving up their freedom

Nation's lifestyle police target the food you eat

BY JEFF JACOBY

YOU didn't object when they forced motorcyclists to wear helmets. It's for their own good, you figured. And it was no skin off your nose, since you don't ride motorcycles anyway.

You didn't protest when they passed mandatory seat-belt laws. You couldn't see what the big deal was -- after all, you've always buckled up.

You didn't say anything when they pushed tobacco ads off the air, or when they drove up the price of cigarettes with sin taxes, or when they tried to classify nicotine as a drug. Smoking, you believed, is nasty and unhealthy; why shouldn't the government discourage it?

You kept quiet when they made air bags compulsory. When they passed laws to keep adults from owning guns. When they tried to censor the Internet. Yes, all of these eroded Americans' freedom to make decisions for themselves. And yes, they further empowered the government to regulate the way we live our lives. But none of them discommoded you personally, so you didn't see any reason to speak out.

Do you think the lifestyle police will stop goose-stepping when they get to something you do care about?

Meet Kelly Brownell. He directs the Center for Eating and Weight disorders at Yale, and he doesn't like your diet. "The contribution of diet to poor health in America is staggering," he says. "It's an epidemic."

Brownell doesn't stop there. He isn't satisfied with trying to persuade you to eat less junk food. He wants Big Brother to make you eat less junk food. In a dispatch this month, the Associated Press reports: "Brownell believes the government should subsidize the sale of healthy food, increase the cost of non-nutritional foods through taxes, and regulate food advertising to discourage unhealthy practices."

In the name of "public health," the anti-tobacco bullies have gotten away with restricting speech, crushing freedom of choice, penalizing the consumers of a lawful product, and demonizing the sellers of that product. Brownell thinks the food bullies should be able to do no less.

"To me," he has said, "there is no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel." Pause to recall the hysterical outrage that R.J. Reynolds' cartoon figure evoked -- a Washington Post columnist called Joe Camel ads "as dangerous as putting rat poison in a candy wrapper" -- and you get a sense of just how far Brownell would like to go.

Societies do not usually lose their freedom at a blow. They give it up bit by bit, letting themselves be tied down with an infinity of little knots. As rules and regulations increase, their range of action is gradually compressed. Their options slowly lessen. Without noticing the change, they become wards of the state. They still imagine themselves free, but in a thousand and one ways, their choices are limited and guided by the authorities. And always, there are what seem to be sensible reasons for letting their autonomy be peeled away -- "safety," "health," "social justice," "equal opportunity."

It is easy to grow accustomed to docility. That is why eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Not because liberty is easy to shatter. But because it can be softened and dismantled with the acquiescence of the very men and women from whom it is being stolen.

Many Americans no longer understand this, which is why the government now dictates everything from the words that may appear on wine labels to the volume of water toilets may flush. But Brownell and his ilk understand it very well. To those who snicker at his goal of hitting snack-food makers with heavy taxes and forbidding the use of Ronald McDonald in advertising, Brownell has a reply:

"If 20 years ago somebody had said, 'I predict that states will recover health care costs from the tobacco industry for deaths; I predict that an icon of smoking advertising, Joe Camel, would be banned from billboards,' people would have said, 'Oh, that's horrible government intrusion.' What is now taken for granted, 20 years ago would have been thought of as impossible."

Exactly.

Watch as it unfolds. Already other voices have taken up Brownell's call. The Center for Science in the Public Interest -- the food fanatics who periodically issue reports denouncing movie popcorn and Chinese food -- declares that "diet and lack of exercise kill as many people as tobacco" and agrees that a tax on Big Macs and Double Stuf Oreos "makes eminent sense." Hanna Rosin writes in The New Republic that a tax on fatty foods "can actually be a less intrusive policy than regulating tobacco," and asks, "Is it really such a crazy idea?" US News & World Report hails the "Twinkie tax" as one of "16 Silver Bullets: Smart Ideas to Fix the World."

Soon you'll hear about all the children whose lives will be cut short because they got hooked on junk food at an early age. You'll see references to the 300,000 people "killed" each year by fatty diets. In time there will be lawsuits and congressional hearings and moving testimony by the "victims" of chocolate and butterfat. Politicians, sensing another interest group to pander to, will demand strict controls over candy ads. Ben and Jerry will be transformed from kindly Vermont hippies to foul peddlers of heart disease.

Preposterous, you say! Laughable! Absurd!

Philip Morris used to think so, too.


Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.


PS The FAA has approved banning peanuts from domestic flights. Many schools already ban peanuts and peanut butter from children's lunches, including those brought from home. And then there's the War on Drugs....