Politics in the Private Realm: Government Regulation of Obesity

weight_lossWith roughly half of US adults being overweight and 20 percent medically obese, it is no wonder that obesity remains a salient political issue.

Though packing on a few extra pounds was historically a sign of wealth, attitudes toward being overweight began to change at the turn of the nineteenth century and have been changing ever since.

As a result, the US government has faced increased pressure to regulate the private matter of weight loss, including everything from portion sizes to fat content to nutritional labeling. Below are several factors that can influence government regulation of private matters such as diet.

Medical Warnings

Scientific knowledge has grown exponentially in the past century. As such, medical practitioners are making more informed recommendations than ever before. By the 1950s, a causal link between obesity and increased risk for cardiac disease, diabetes, and other dreadful conditions was clearly established.

Shortly thereafter, the harmful effects of smoking tobacco were released in a medical report. In just one generation, smoking habits changed dramatically as a result of this report and the political response it stirred.

Though the medical community does not always get the facts right, what is more important for regulation is the way in which politicians use and manipulate this information. Political entrepreneurs can choose to use a particular study as the lynchpin of their crusade against a certain condition such as obesity.

Conversely, politicians can bury and discredit a study if it does not agree with their views. As such, medical studies can serve as the launch pad for political change, as was the case with the tobacco industry, or they can go largely ignored, as is the case currently for studies on the effects of being overweight.

Social Condemnation and Mobilization

With or without medical cause, private groups have historically chosen to condemn activities such as promiscuous sex and alcohol consumption. The first anti-fat groups appeared in the late nineteenth century.

These movements typically begin with a certain habit, such as overeating, being condemned as undesirable behavior at best and sinful gluttony at worst. Though overeating has not been vilified as a public threat like drug and tobacco use, people hoping to lose weight are often met with much antipathy.

Once  a group decides to demonize a certain industry or activity, particularly a commonplace activity such as smoking tobacco in the 1960s, the seeds of societal change are sewn. Once groups begin to mobilize en masse, they are much harder to ignore. Take for example female temperance groups in the nineteenth century.

When only a handful of women turned out to pray in front of bars, they were mocked by the public. When 200,000 showed up, however, policymakers were willing to negotiate. Since obesity is not viewed as a threat to public health, mass mobilization that was seen in previous movements has yet to manifest.

Role of Special Interest Groups

Lastly, special interest groups play a crucial role in determining government regulation. Interest groups can be more effective than simple mobilization of average citizens because interest groups are more politically savvy, articulate specific complaints, and offer concise policy proposals. Thus they are more likely to receive attention from politicians because they have a plan and speak the language of law.

In the case of government regulation of obesity, interest groups play a role on both sides of the fence. Weight loss groups lobby congress and attempt to present the obesity epidemic as a real threat to public health. However, the food industry – fast food in particular – has its own interests to protect. Thus, special interest groups for the food industry are powerful and able to lock horns with any would-be regulators.

Is Government Regulation on the Horizon?

Currently, there does not appear to be any sort of government regulation to prevent obesity forthcoming. In fact, the government subsidizes the three main sources of fat in the American diet: dairy, red meat, and oils sourced from plants. The US government regulation of food tends to focus on purity and accuracy, though nutrition is often overlooked.

A good place to start for weight loss legislation would be to limit the amount of high-fat, low-nutrient options on the market. While weight loss is important, focusing on nutrition would be a better goal.

But for now, Americans are able to make their own dietary choices which includes many unhealthy options, so it looks like the obesity epidemic is set to continue uncurbed by government policy.