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The legal war against fat

The legal war against fat

THERE IS a saying that you can’t legislate on common sense. But as obesity rates and healthcare costs soar, causing lost productivity into the billions, governments are starting to do just…

THERE IS a saying that you can’t legislate on common sense. But as obesity rates and healthcare costs soar, causing lost productivity into the billions, governments are starting to do just that.

California recently passed a ban on trans-fats (fats derived from partially hydrogenated oils), which have long been linked to health problems such as heart attacks and obesity. New York City, Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia have adopted similar bans, as has Denmark. South Australia is leading the charge for a national ban there.

Under the Californian law, to be phased in from 2010, all “food facilities” will have to stop using oils, margarine, and shortening containing trans-fats, and cooking products will have to be labelled for inspection purposes. Fines will range between $25 and $1000 for violations of the ban.

Opposition to the law came mainly from the California Restaurant Association, which, the New York Times reported, argued it would be an expensive move that should be decided by the federal, rather than state, government.

But many fast-food chains, including Dunkin’ Donuts, and some restaurants, have already cut their use of trans-fats to keep up with public mood.

Fatty foods, it seems, are becoming the cigarettes of yesteryear.

England has a special tax for fatty and salty foods, while France is considering a 14.1 per cent increase in taxes on delicacies such as foie gras and pastries.

Meanwhile the New York Times reveals that New York requires restaurants to provide a calorie breakdown on menus, and the Los Angeles City Council last month introduced a year-long moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in some of its poorest neighbourhoods in what appears to be the first ban on a style of restaurant for health reasons A Los Angles radio host denounced the prohibition, saying it assumes people who live in the area are “intellectually incapable of deciding what to eat,” reported the New York Times. Men’s Health Magazine editor-in-chief and diet book author David Zinczenko, who was interviewed for the same article, had a different take. “I think you can begin to put together a case for governmental intervention,” he said, referring to the “monopolisation of our dietary intake by a handful of corporations” and the fact that a piece of fruit costs at least twice as much as a few Chicken McNuggets.

New Zealand has also joined the cause. The Public Health Bill covers everything from what goes in school lunch boxes to physical activity and food advertising, and new healthy eating guidelines are designed to combat obesity by forcing schools to sell healthy food. Neither has escaped opposition.

It is difficult to strike a balance between improving and protecting public health while maintaining individual freedom. However, one must ask how much respect the freedom to become a rotund and costly health catastrophe — and the right to assist people in getting there — really deserves.

Surely the obesity epidemic deserves more than public complacency.

This story first appeared in NZ Lawyer.

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The legal war against fat
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