Public-interest agency becoming tyrannical

By Walter Williams: Syndicated columnist

Some call the people behind the Washington-D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) busybodies, but I call them wannabe tyrants. Let’s look at their agenda, which seeks greater control over our lives.

Last year, CSPI filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reduce the amount of salt in packaged foods. They also called for the FDA to mandate warning labels on non-diet soft drinks that consumption increases the risk of obesity, tooth decay and osteoporosis. Earlier this year, CSPI announced its intent to sue Viacom Inc. and Kellogg Company for marketing junk food to children.

CSPI has long called for excise taxes on fatty foods, cars and TV sets. Their justification is that obesity adds to Medicare and Medicaid health costs. They want some of the tax revenue used to fund exercise facilities and government fitness campaigns.

There’s no end to CSPI’s consumer control agenda. They say, “Caffeine is the only drug that is widely added to the food supply.” Therefore, they’ve called for caffeine warning labels. To deal with teenage and adult overconsumption of alcohol, they’ve called for doubling the tax on beer. According to them, “The last thing the world needs is more drinkers, even moderate ones.”

To fight obesity among young people, CSPI calls for a fast-food advertising ban on TV programs seen by children. CSPI’s director, Michael Jacobson, said, “We could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses, (and) meat,” adding that “CSPI is proud about finding something wrong with practically everything.”

I’m guessing that most Americans, except politicians, find this control agenda offensive. Politicians might not find it offensive because controlling lives is their stock in trade, plus there’s the promise of the higher revenues from food taxes. Most Americans who might find the CSPI agenda offensive are not motivated by principle. It’s a matter of whose ox is being gored.

You say, “What do you mean, Williams?” CSPI tyrants are following almost to the letter the template created by the nation’s anti-smoking zealots. Their fellow traveler, New York University professor Marion Nestle, says that the food industry “can’t behave like cigarette companies. … Yet there’s a lot of people who benefit from people being fat and sick, and the whole setup is designed to make people eat more. So the response to the food industry should be very similar to what happened with the tobacco companies.”

The anti-smoking zealots started out with “reasonable” demands, such as warning labels on cigarette packs and no smoking sections on airplanes. They made exaggerated claims about the cost that smokers were imposing on the health care system. Then cigarette manufacturers faced multimillion-dollar lawsuits and multibillion-dollar local, state and federal extortion, not to mention confiscatory taxes, all of which are passed on to smokers in the form of higher prices.

Just recently, the City of Calabasas, Calif., adopted an ordinance that bans smoking in virtually all outdoor areas. Partial justification is to protect children from bad influences — seeing adults smoking. Had the anti-smoking zealots revealed their entire agenda back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they wouldn’t have gotten much. By using the piecemeal approach, they’ve been successful beyond their dreams, and the food zealots are following their example.

I’d be interested to know just how many Americans would like to see done to our food industry what was done to the tobacco industry: massive multibillion-dollar lawsuits against food companies; massive suits against restaurants that serve too large a serving, and confiscatory taxes levied on foods and snacks deemed non-nutritious.

Consumers will pay for all of this in the form of higher food prices and fewer choices. There’s also the possibility that food zealots in some cities, emboldened by the success of the anti-smoking zealots in Calabasas, who are concerned about smokers passing on bad habits to our youth, might call for an ordinance banning public appearance of obese people so as not to pass bad eating habits on to our children.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes for Creators Syndicate and may be contacted at: wwilliam@gmu.edu