Fight Against Fat

State and local governments are discovering new weapons in the battle to keep citizens in shape.
October 2005
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Brookings Institution

If Rocky Balboa were to make his storied run again from South Philadelphia up to the Art Museum steps, he'd find some very un-Rocky- like signals along his way. Many of the city's "walk/don't walk" signs have "walk" figures that can only be described as chubby--thick arms and trunks that suggest pedestrians badly in need of exercise.

Maybe the city government is trying to shame Philadelphia residents into working harder to stay in shape. Or maybe it isn't. Either way, the pudgy pedestrians serve as an appropriate symbol of an interesting and deepening trend: The nation's state and local governments are becoming more and more active when it comes to creating a healthier populace.

In California, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer has filed suit to force Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and other restaurant chains to post labels warning that their French fries contain arcylamide, a chemical linked in large doses to cancer in animals. For good measure, he has sued the makers of Pringles and Cape Cod potato chips as well.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not determined whether arcylamide, produced when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures, is dangerous to humans, Lockyer argues that consumers "should have access to information we need to make informed decisions about the food we eat." A spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, one of the defendants in his suit, insists that the company's experts "absolutely think our products are now as safe as ever." But regardless of the outcome, Lockyer has made his point.

Meanwhile, having led a battle for smoke-free bars and restaurants, New York health commissioner Thomas Frieden is launching a new crusade to ask the city's restaurants to stop cooking with trans fats-- partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Pointing to heart disease as the city's number one killer, he argues that trans fats are a prime contributor to unhealthy eating, and that a shift to sunflower oil and olive oil would prevent more New Yorkers from getting sick.

The federal government certainly isn't being passive on this front. Under the leadership of Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the feds have been taking a more aggressive role in publicizing the health dangers of too many fatty foods and too little exercise.

But the arrows in the federal regulatory quiver are relatively limited. CDC can use its bully pulpit. The National Institutes of Health and FDA have funded extensive research projects.

State and local officials, however, can do things the federal agencies can't. They can pass new laws and ordinances, such as those limiting or prohibiting smoking in public places. They can aggressively exploit existing standards in ways that their predecessors did not attempt. Lockyer's suit challenging arcylamide, for example, was filed under a 1986 California law requiring warnings on products that contain carcinogens or toxins that could affect the reproductive system.

Elected officials, magnets for media coverage at campaign time, have one other weapon available to them. They can make examples of themselves--in the interest of the public health and their own image. Michael Bloomberg has been doing that in his campaign for reelection as New York's mayor. By cutting back on wine, bacon and eggs, and cream cheese, Bloomberg has lost 10 well-publicized pounds.

Those efforts can pose special perils for a candidate running for office in one of America's eating capitals. Bloomberg had to pass a famous milkshake shop on his way to welcome Weight Watchers as the company moved from Long Island into Manhattan. His campaign team was willing to make the sacrifice. "You feel better when you're slimmer," explained Deputy Mayor Patricia E. Harris.

It would be easy to dismiss the campaign for smoke-free restaurants, trans-fat-free fries and more wiry candidates as a series of publicity stunts. But it's more than that. State and local governments are finding new ways to expand their policy turf as they try to shrink the midsections of their citizens.