Obesity Is Not the Government’s Business: Campos and Stossel Win the Slate/Intelligence Squared Debate

Live debates about fascinating and contentious topics.
Feb. 8 2012 12:56 PM

Uncle Sam Is Not Coming to Dinner

Who won the Slate/Intelligence Squared debate on whether obesity is the government’s business, and why.

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In response, Peeke cited the National Weight Control Registry, a collection of 10,000 “successful losers” who dropped at least 30 pounds and maintained their slimmer build for more than a year. She highlighted the role of education in such success, as well as the virtues of walking and eating a nutritious breakfast. Peeke maintained that the government could advance public health by weaving useful tips about obesity prevention and treatment into school curricula. Donvan took the opportunity to ask Stossel why he found gentler, information-based approaches to state intervention problematic.

“Because the schools can barely teach reading, writing, and arithmetic,” Stossel answered, to roars of laughter.

But moments later, Satcher neatly toppled this call for triage: “Children who develop good eating habits and regular physical activity do better academically,” he countered. Plus, “the goal of these programs is to help children develop lifetime habits.”

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When Stossel replied that they could do so by watching Peeke’s show on the Discovery Channel, Peeke was ready with the death blow. “Unfortunately, many people don’t have the Discovery Channel,” she scolded him. The crowd cheered.

Former Surgeon General Satcher envisioned the broadest role for the federal government in the battle of the bulge. The state has unmatched resources to spread opportunity, he told me. For the former surgeon general, federal intervention fell into three categories: Assessment (the collection of population data), making sure people have access to opportunities to live healthfully (e.g. building urban parks), and policy (e.g. establishing nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches). Though benign, his picture almost paralled Stossel’s three-part description of the process by which government grows and liberty yields: “It starts with information. It moves to taxes. Then it moves to limits on what you can consume.”

Meanwhile, Campos traced the nation’s fat-phobia not to any kind of welfare imperative (or encroaching fascism), but to the desire for social status.

“Body weight functions as a proxy for class,” he told me backstage. “All this health business is a smokescreen for a false construct—obesity—that expresses our unconscious prejudices.”

Among other things, Feb. 7 was a night of analogies. Both Peeke and Satcher returned frequently to smoking as a doppelganger for overeating and observed that government intervention paid off in the tobacco wars. (Campos at one point challenged the comparison by asking, half seriously, whether his debate opponents recommended people renounce food.) Obesity was also compared to breast cancer, the aging process, and erectile dysfunction.

The debate ended with a sensational closing-statement arms race. It began when John Stossel brandished the directions for a package of birth control pills and groused about how complicated they were, thanks to federal regulations. Then David Satcher conjured the ghost of a racist South to show that he was no stranger to government corruption. (“I’ve seen government at its worst, but I’ve also seen government at its best,’” he concluded.) Next, Paul Campos likened the pathologizing of erectile dysfunction—a natural symptom of being 50 years old, he said—to the pharmaceutical-company-fueled belief that obesity is a disease. Not to be outdone, Pamela Peeke used her two-minute closing statement to recount a story about being chased by feral dogs in a poor neighborhood, ostensibly because it showed that it’s not always safe to exercise outside.

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