FOR THE PHOTO-OP on Tuesday, the United States became a fat farm. "We're just too darned fat, ladies and gentlemen, and we're going to do something about it," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said.
He said this as he released new statistics showing that obesity will probably become our number one preventable killer next year, on its way to killing 500,000 people a year. The next day on the "Today Show," Thompson vowed that his department "is going to take an all-out, aggressive, offensive effort" against the epidemic. He went so far as to claim that the pharaohs of fat were loosening their bonds on the minds of America's youth. "Kraft food has come out . . . with all healthy foods. Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, all of these companies are starting to step up. McDonald's has just stopped super-sizing. So we're starting to have an impact."
As we know, photo-ops are shows laden with the political equivalent of hydrogenated fats, meant to disguise the fact that there is no meat on the bones. Even as Thompson spoke, the pharaohs were on Capitol Hill, sitting in glee as the House voted, 276-139, to ban lawsuits against trash-food companies. The bill's sponsor, Republican Ric Keller of Florida, said, "The food industry is under attack and in the cross hairs of the same trial lawyers who went after big tobacco."
Unsaid was that Keller and his fellow Republicans were in the cross hairs of the food industry. Among Keller's current top five political contributors are the corporation that runs the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, Outback Steakhouse, and Disney (and we all know how healthy the food is at Disney World).
From 1995 to 2002, according to Common Cause, food and grocery companies and restaurants gave more than $19.3 million in soft money to Republican causes compared with $5.5 million for Democrats.
Many companies give to both parties, but there is no mistaking their political loyalties. Coca-Cola and affiliated donors, for instance, gave $807,000 to Democrats but $1.74 million to Republicans. PepsiCo gave $255,000 to the Democrats but $1.7 million to Republicans. Nestle gave the Democrats $59,000 but gave the Republicans $208,000.Burger King gave $20,000 to Democrats but $111,000 to Republicans.
Of the $26 million contributed by restaurant companies and food processors in the 2000 elections, 71 percent of the money went to Republicans. The National Restaurant Association, Philip Morris (with a constellation of trash food in its resume, such as Kraft), Outback, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's, Waffle House, Pizza Hut, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Burger King, Cracker Barrel, and General Mills are among the top contributors on lists compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics that gave 77 percent or more of their money to Republican causes.
You probably never knew that doughnuts were a peculiarly Republican trash food. But in the current election cycle, Dunkin' Donuts and Krispy Kreme have both given 100 percent of their money to Republicans.
This is more than whether companies should be shielded from lawsuits. In a vacuum, it is an individual choice to put an apple or a Krispy Kreme in your mouth. It is about a larger war the fat pharaohs, profiting on easy-to-process sugars and starches, are waging to rearrange our brains to make us think we need the Krispy Kreme. The House vote this week on legal shields pales next to the oncoming cultural war over advertising.
Already, health advocates are calling for bans of trash food ads on children's TV, the removal of soda and candy machines from schools, and cigarette-like taxes on trash food. The House vote only fuels the culture war instead of squelching it. As with cigarettes, the dawning upon us of the health disaster of trash food and our sedentary lives took a while. Now that it is here, advertising limitations or bans may be closer and more welcomed than you think.
Thompson's braggadocio means very little given his paltry ammunition. Thompson says he wants $440 million for obesity research. Well, the trash food companies have already done their research, and their investment in brainwashing makes the government look like it's holding a wilting single stalk of asparagus in an avalanche of French fries.
In 2002 alone, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Applebee's, Starbucks, and Domino's Pizza spent a combined $2.2 billion on advertising, according to Advertising Age. McDonald's alone outspends government efforts to combat obesity. In 2002, the fried burger company spent $548 million on advertising.
Thompson is right. The nation is too darned fat. Thompson's political allies are also too fat in the wallet from the companies making us fat. Until that changes, his decrees is just a hydrogenated photo op. All fat. No meat. And definitely no fruit or vegetables.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.