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A test for state legislators:
More than one-third (35 percent) of your population is obese. It ranks No. 1 in pulchritude – the fattest of the 50 states. Since the other states are not especially trim, that rank is noteworthy.
What do you, as a state, do?
a) Make restaurants turn out healthier cuisines.
b) Require restaurants to post calorie counts beside menu items.
c) Nothing. You leave the market of food vendors and the buyers of foodstuffs alone.
d) You expressly forbid any governmental effort to regulate the size of sodas, or to post calorie counts.
If you are Mississippi, the answer is (d).
New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg earned a place in legislative annals with his Bloomberg rule, barring city restaurants from peddling super-sized soft drinks – a bar that a state judge overturned.
The stated reason for Mississippi’s actions: legislators don’t want a hodgepodge of local regulations on food. But since the state has not instituted any regulations on its end, the ban on local action constitutes enthusiastic support for the eating style that will lead to obesity.
Civil libertarians have a point: a government’s decision to regulate restaurants’ choices borders on Big Brother extremism. Singling out large sodas seems useless, as well as illegal.
Yet the impetus behind all the Bloomberg-type edicts is valid. Obesity is not so much a personal ailment as a political one.
The usual bromides against our epidemic of obesity zero in on the consequences for the eater: diabetes, heart disease, some kinds of cancer, joint problems.
But we know the basic math: calories in, calories expended. We can almost calculate the pounds gained or lost. In fact, one Mississippi school district lists the calorie counts behind its public school menu: a cheesy burger bake for lunch constitutes 590 calories. Add the rest, and you have a 900-calorie lunch.
The state, though, is not a completely passive onlooker, watching citizens eat their way to obesity. Obese citizens depress productivity.
When obese citizens fall ill, moreover, they may end up on the government’s insurance tab – either Medicare or Medicaid.
Not surprisingly, Mississippi has no state ban on smoking in restaurants. In 2011 and 2012, the legislature refused to enact any such law (though more than 50 municipalities have enacted their own smoking bans) – even though smokers, like overeaters, are likely to run up big medical bills.
Mississippi boasts that it has limited government’s scope, keeping it out of the lives of citizens. Ironically, these limits cost taxpayers. •