Anti-smoking campaigns, anti-obesity campaigns, and immortality

Sociologist Peter Berger believes that there are similarities between the activism against smoking in public and for the regulation of foods that contribute to obesity. He concludes his post:

Back to the new war against obesity: It is not difficult to predict the trajectory which this project will follow. Very probably it will replicate, step by step, the war against tobacco.  Once again, the basic rationale is the prevention of illness. Heart disease is the illness most closely associated with obesity—not as scary as lung cancer, but scary enough. The scientific validation of the project is clear—obesity is unhealthy. The same interests that supported the anti-smoking crusaders can be mobilized once again—doctors who jump on the prevention bandwagon when their ability to cure is often limited, researchers in need of funding, bureaucrats looking for new behaviors to regulate, activists in search of employment opportunities, and of course, legions of tort lawyers, salivating at the prospect of gargantuan settlements from the food and drinks industry. Pizza Hut and Pepsi Cola may take the place of Philip Morris as public enemies (and defendants in class-action lawsuits). The same arguments will serve to counter libertarian scruples—social costs and innocent bystanders. Children will again be featured in the litany of victims. (Michelle Obama understandably likes to preach in kindergartens and elementary schools.) Finally, class is again involved here: Upper income and higher education is associated with virtuous slimness, while all these fat working-class types waddle from Burger King to the unemployment lines. Just as the Victorian bourgeoisie tried to convert the poor slobs to its table of virtues (alcohol of course was then the most targeted vice), so the new bourgeoisie bombards the lower classes with itstemperance crusade. (One might speak of the eternal return of the Salvation Army—George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara would today be reincarnated as a coach with Weight Watchers). It remains to be seen how far this will go before the Great Unwashed remember that, after all, they are (still) allowed to vote.

[Personal disclosure: I gave up smoking years ago. I have never liked the beverages targeted by Mayor Bloomberg. So, as they say in Texas, I have no dog in this fight. However, I have a fierce commitment to individual freedom, and a keen sense of the slippery slope which opens up when even a seemingly modest exercise of this freedom is arbitrarily taken away by government actions.]

Does this have anything to do with religion? I think it does. The quest of immortality is one of the most ancient religious themes.  The health cult, with its mirage of endless youth if not immortality, is a quasi-religion. Its dogma is the obligation to live healthily. Like all religions, the health cult has a catalogue of virtues and a catalogue of vices, with rituals to affirm the former and ostracize the latter. There is also an equivalent of the Saudi Arabian police force dedicated to “the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice”—an army of therapists, coaches, educators, advice columnists, dieticians, and other moral entrepreneurs. To date (still) they mainly rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Wait a little.


One comment

  1. Berger tackles paternalistic social movements reasonably well, but his snark is off-putting and confusing. e.g. “The smokers, officially designated sinners, presumably deserve any future illness caused by their filthy habit”. Well, yes, smokers do deserve the consequences of smoking. What kind of illiberal moral calculus is he implying by his sarcasm?

    I also think he does a bad job elucidating the proper boundaries of government which undermines his argument mirroring anti-smoking to anti-obesity.

    For example, Berger notes that the argument for protecting innocent bystanders “was most successful in justifying the tsunami of anti-smoking laws that swept across the world in recent decades” but he does not explain what the secondhand effect is of obesity that would parallel secondhand smoke.

    Socialized medicine forces a secondary effect, but as Berger blithely mentions, it might be offset by not having to pay for healthcare later in life, which works against his argument. I actually think there is a moral case that socialized medicine entails an obligation to control individuals’ choices, but this works against socialism at least as much as it works for government paternalism.

    In my opinion, controlling smoking in public is a valid use of government, though I disagree that businesses should be considered public places for this purpose. Prosecuting fraud due to intentionally or negligently misrepresenting your product is also valid.

    I think Berger is slightly off regarding the search for immortality being at the fore of this debate. It’s instead primarily about paternalism. And while I’m all for recognition of the inarticulate, vague, and widespread applicability of the term “religion” as Berger uses it, “cult” is obviously incorrect and that whole analogy seems intended to insult.

    But he does make an interesting observation that paternalism is class warfare. We often think of class warfare in terms of the poor hating the rich, but it’s good to highlight the rich’s salvos in the form of authoritarian policies (almost all of which are well-intentioned, such as anti-obesity, welfare, minimum wage, etc.).

    Regarding the 16oz. ban itself, even beyond the terrible abuse of government, it is sad because there is no evidence that it will even be effective in reducing obesity, or that it is even enforceable, given self-serve soda fountains and other avenues of bypassing it.

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