WASHINGTON — In the year since Michelle Obama launched her campaign against obesity, she’s drawn increasing criticism from left and right. While some complaints have merits on the margins, the first lady’s efforts have been mostly reasonable and well-grounded.
From the right, critics argue she has gone too far. Food industry pundit Jim Prevor argues that the first lady’s advocacy differs qualitatively from that of earlier first ladies. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and Laura Bush’s reading initiative promoted existing federal policy. But Obama’s initiative includes “advocacy of policies that have never been endorsed by the democratic process,” Prevor observes, citing her advocacy for legislation such as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
But much of the criticism from the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh smells of cheap shots. Conservatives should be relieved that a campaign from the wife of a Democratic president hasn’t followed the big-government playbook for fighting obesity.
In fact, a large part of the first lady’s campaign is centered on balanced diets, individual responsibility and limited rather than expansive government.
The right’s indignation should be redirected to more insidious “solutions” to the obesity problem being promoted by much of the so-called public health community, which is dominated by people who adhere to a broader ideology.
The big-government approaches are not consistent with a capitalist society, discount the importance of personal responsibility and aren’t likely to be effective.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the first big-city mayor to require chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. The federal government followed, including a similar provision in the health care legislation. But scientific studies have found the intrusive requirements don’t influence our decisions about what to order.
Does that mean advocates for shrinking waistlines are calling for a reversal of the ineffective policy? Did they stop advocating for government interference with interactions between legal businesses and consumers?
Of course not. The author of one recent study that showed that kids aren’t influenced by mandatory calorie counts on menu boards on behalf of nanny-staters everywhere told Reuters, “It means we’re going to have to rethink what other sorts of interventions might be more effective.”
Some advocates are calling for the government to restrict advertising to children. And San Francisco’s ban on McDonald’s Happy Meals was a major slide down the slippery slope of treating food like tobacco by restricting marketing to children. But as the first lady would certainly agree, food and tobacco have almost nothing in common.
Some activists see industry as the enemy. But instead of threatening industry, Obama has worked with industry rather than against it. She understands that in our free society it is appropriate for her to offer a carrot rather than threaten with a stick.
And indeed, retailers are offering healthier fare — for a profit, of course. As a Burger King executive once said, “We are in the business of selling people the food they want to eat.” Until the left embraces this concept, they will continue to wrongly believe that “profit” is a four-letter word.
Wisely, the first lady hasn’t gone down that path. Instead, she argues for — and, more important perhaps, leads by example — promoting moderate, livable diets and an active lifestyle.
• Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank in Washington.