A Tea Party with Snacks—The Libertarian Obstacle to Sound Public Health Policy

First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature policy initiative Let’s Move! received fresh support in the form of performing artist Beyonce, who released her “Let’s Move” workout video on Tuesday, timed to generate support for a national “dance-in” on May 3rd.  Let’s Move!, a campaign to wipe out the childhood obesity epidemic in a generation, marked its first anniversary earlier this year, with school cafeterias across the country now offering more healthy alternatives while reducing the availability of unhealthy choices.  Let’s Move! directs public health policy in schools to improve the health of children through good nutrition and physical activity.  Yet the campaign is not without its detractors, specifically those aligned with libertarian or minarchist ideologies, who criticize as unconstitutional the elements of the campaign they perceive to impinge upon individual freedoms. In February, the magazine American Spectator belittled Michelle Obama as “America’s No. 1 food nanny.”  Earlier, when Michelle divulged that she tells her daughters dessert is not a right, Sarah Palin, a self-appointed tribune of the decidedly libertarian Tea Party movement, shot back that Ms. Obama “is telling us she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families, in what we should eat.”

Palin’s comment is typical of the Tea Party’s position, that the Founders intended to establish a country where individuals are free to engage in any harmful behavior they choose to pursue. But government intervention is warranted and indeed crucial to protect our population from foods that are arguably as harmful to us as illicit drugs and, as recent research from the Scripps Research Institute shows, just as addictive.

Modern anthropology proposes a cause for our seeming affinity for unhealthy food.  About 2.5 million years ago, our ancestors developed a taste for meat, no longer relying on fruits and vegetables alone for sustenance.  Our propensities evolved in a world of scarcity; humanity was essentially programmed to have an insatiable desire for sweet, fat, and salt.  For most Americans today, though, such foods are far from scarce.  So, while these instincts were evolutionary successes in our lean past, they can be a dangerous liability in our present of comparative plenty.

Technology has almost removed the necessity of physical exercise for most Americans while filling grocery stores across the country with cheap processed food, often packed with empty calories and non-nutritive chemical constituents (for coloring, preservation, etc.).  The advent of the information age has further complicated the problem: Mass media allow advertisers, most notably fast-food companies, to broadcast nearly ubiquitous urgings to “consume more, cheaply!”  And while awareness of the importance of caloric consumption has increased due to caloric labeling initiatives in this country, the trend of obesity continues upward.

Not surprisingly, many corporate interests benefit directly from overconsumption and the otherwise unhealthy dietary choices of consumers.  Members of the food and beverage industry have long profited from the public’s difficulties in resisting the temptation of empty calories.   These moneyed interests obstinately fight any attempt to temper consumption, as seen in their vigorous opposition to “soda taxes” proposed in New York State.  The clout demonstrated by these companies, many of them multinational conglomerates, is all the more reason to advocate for increased government involvement in nutrition and physical health.  Government intervention in public health policy serves to counterpoise private industry’s well-funded position of advantage.

The arguments against a more active public health policy can be nebulous and at times purposefully misleading.  Opponents of the New York soda taxes, for example, emphasized the fact that the tax would seemingly fall disproportionately upon the poor, sidestepping the more important exigency—that the poor, by virtue of their limited resources, are the least able to contend with obesity, diabetes, and the other health complications that attend the consumption of flavored soft drinks.  Similarly, opponents of Let’s Move! employ misdirection.  Rather than suggesting real solutions to the increasingly urgent obesity epidemic, they confuse the issue by conjuring a threat to our nation’s founding principles of individualism and freedom of choice. One can easily picture much the same argument spouted by tobacco company lobbyists when the Surgeon General mandated explicit warnings on packages of cigarettes.

It is clear that the playing field is alarmingly uneven between public health advocates and industry in the fight to eliminate obesity.  There is a dangerous synergy between profit-driven corporate interests and our own hardwired nature that seems to push us toward unhealthy dietary decisions.  We need to mobilize our government to work for the public’s goodwill, as it must whenever moneyed interests threaten to defraud the people, and Let’s Move! is a step in the right direction.  The comprehensive public health policy that we need must increase consumer awareness to the long-term health implications of fast food, processed foods, and all unhealthy dietary decisions while encouraging the healthier alternatives, with the ultimate goal of reversing the trends of obesity that are devastating our nation’s present and future.  Lets Move! to make America healthier now and beyond.

A resident of Harlem, Chirag Raval is a former New York Life graduate fellow in the Center's Colin Powell Leadership Program. He is currently researching the earliest events of atherosclerosis while obtaining his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the Grove School of Engineering.