Of course, all lunchroom behavior was under the watchful eye of Mrs. Longstreet, a fixture in the cafeteria who took seriously her responsibility of in loco parentis. She kept an eye on what everyone ate, or didn't eat, and wasn't afraid to intervene if you had too much or too little of what you should have been having. I think her role was appropriate given the age of her flock. But today, the government is increasingly trying to play lunchroom lady, and unlike Mrs. Longstreet, I'm not sure that's in the job description.
On the heels of the war on trans fats, calorie postings on menus and a New York legislator's efforts to take all salt out of the hands of the chefs in the state's restaurants, comes Mayor Nutter's proposed 2-cents-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks.
He's not alone. Colorado's state legislature passed such a tax. California and Kansas are considering them. In New York, Gov. David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg both endorsed the idea (though the state Senate rebuffed it this week).
I understand the reasoning behind it. Too many of us are drinking enormous sweet drinks. But we also eat too many Tastykakes and Pat's Steaks, and where is the line between them? Don't get me wrong. Obesity is a big problem, but it's also a complex one aggravated by a number of factors - from larger portions to more time spent in sedentary pursuits. So what's the argument for taxing Mountain Dew, but not Milky Ways?
Dr. Kelly Brownell, a nationally recognized obesity expert listed among the world's 100 most influential people by Time in 2006, spelled it out for me.
First came a study just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine finding that a smaller soda tax would correlate with less daily caloric intake and thus lower body weight. Those findings came on the heels of a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last fall in which researchers estimated that a national 1-cent-an-ounce soda tax could result in two pounds of weight loss a year. Brownell was a co-author of the NEJM study, so I tracked him down to discuss the mayor's plan.
"There are many good reasons for doing it. But the primary one is that the health-care costs that we all bear for problems like obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing. So now the average American person is paying about $250 out of their own pocket for the health-care costs for these diseases whether they drink soda or not."
I agree that it's not fair that the person keeping himself fit by watching his diet and working out is shouldering the economic burden of the guy drinking too many Big Gulps.
But I have a different approach to fix that. Instead of being punitive by raising the price of soda, federal, state and local governments should be looking for ways to reward people who take care of their bodies. Back at Doyle Elementary, one of the highlights of phys-ed class was the chance to win a presidential fitness badge by completing a range of activities - like sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups. (The latter always stopped me from earning one.)
Why not replicate that with a program that seeks to reward those adults who take care of themselves with lower insurance rates? Compensate those who aren't drinking sweetened drinks to excess, who are working out every day, than to subsidize our dependence on things like 44-ounce drinks and supersized fries.
NO MATTER what the fad diet of the day says, the key to weight loss is the same as it's always been.
People need to eat less and exercise more. Charging more for soft drinks might get them to consume less, but it won't get them outside or into the gym.
The better way to do that is to create a direct incentive for those exercise. Wanna pay less for your co-pay? Get on a StairMaster!
And I have a slogan to help spur that behavior: "First they came for the salt on my margarita glass. Then they came for the margarita."
Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.smerconish.com.