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Column: Familiar debate revived in obesity crisis

Monday - 1/14/2013, 3:35am  ET

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Americans have always been conflicted on what role government should have in their private lives. The scale tilts wildly depending on the issue and the era.

Each day, people, courts and lawmakers wrestle with this constant tension: Where does government's duty to protect its people end and an individual's right to choose begin? And when someone's choice impacts society, how far is too far?

These questions are at the core of the national conversation over America's obesity epidemic, a private issue that's become more public as rates rise and stress our healthcare system.

Clear answers about the right private vs. public balance, as with so many things, will never exist. But the ways Americans prefer to tackle this public-health crisis offer clues about where the nation stands today. And as ambiguous as those views are, they may give our leaders guidance about how to constructively address other issues where the line blurs _ education, guns, energy, gay marriage, marijuana use and the environment, among others.

Obesity deals with a significantly personal issue _ our bodies. But it also has a huge impact on society, given that skyrocketing health care costs are driven in part by the slew of avoidable medical problems it produces.

More than two-thirds of adults, and a third of American children and teens, are obese or overweight. It's one of the nation's top three killers, and it's on the rise.

Views on what to do about it are telling in their contradictions. While Americans are hardly monolithic about it, polling shows that people generally know there's a serious problem.

Most value personal choice over government involvement to address the crisis; in a recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 88 percent said individuals bear the most responsibility. But many also see a role for other entities, including government, in fixing it.

To what extent is debatable.

Eight in 10 favor government policies that make it easier for individuals to make healthier choices, such as providing nutrition and exercise guidelines, and three-quarters support funding farmers markets and bike paths.

But people drew the line at government mandates, with more than half opposing taxes on soda pop or junk food, and three-quarters balking at restrictions on what they can buy.

Americans, polls suggest, want government to pave the way for them to make better health, fitness and nutrition choices by giving them tools, resources and access _ without forcing them to do anything. Ultimately, they want to choose whether to use bike paths, shop farmers markets or select meals based on calorie counts.

Like in so many other areas of our lives, Americans want the benefits of government help but not the restrictions _ give me the tools, then back off.

Even that isn't always a smooth road. First Lady Michelle Obama faced ribbing from critics and comics alike in 2010 when she rolled out her "Let's Move!" campaign to instill healthy habits in the nation's youngest generation.

Yet there was no serious controversy because the campaign focused on marshaling federal resources _ and partnering with communities, businesses and schools as well as the entertainment and sports industries _ to create awareness and provide information about healthy choices for children. "Let's Move!" is funded by government, but it doesn't force anyone to do anything.

But the Obama administration faced heat from critics, including congressional Republicans and parts of the food industry, over changes to the decades-old food pyramid nutrition guidelines. Same story when the Agriculture Department told schools to cut sodium in subsidized meals for low-income children by more than half, use more whole grains, serve low-fat milk and limit kids to one cup of starchy vegetables a week.

That seemed like nothing compared to the backlash New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg _ a political independent who has made healthy initiatives a hallmark of his tenure _ received with his move to restrict sales of large sugary drinks.

Soda makers, restaurateurs and other businesses sued to block the effort by the Bloomberg-appointed health board. Ten City Council members called on the health board to scrap the rule, and a New York Times poll showed that six in 10 people opposed it in New York _ a bastion of liberals who tend to tilt toward bigger government.

Bloomberg's health department has already banned artificial trans fats in restaurant meals and compelled chain eateries to post calorie counts on menus. Now he is trying to banish sugary and fatty foods from public and private hospitals, also stirring controversy.

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