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Meal Time

It turns out that being overweight isn't all that bad for you. Will Bill Maher let people go back to eating what they want?

12:00 AM, Apr 22, 2005 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Being overweight is nowhere near as big a killer as the government thought, ranking No. 7 instead of No. 2 among the nation's leading causes of death, according to a startling new calculation from the CDC. . . . The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated Tuesday that packing on too many pounds accounts for 25,814 deaths a year in the United States. As recently as January, the CDC came up with an estimate 14 times higher: 365,000 deaths.

--Associated Press, April 19, 2005

THIS WAS THE LEAD in a report posted today by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry-funded group that fights, "from farm to fork," for the protection of consumer choice (read: eating). The report, titled New Study Crushes CDC's Obesity-Death Statistic, makes the case that previous CDC estimates were influenced more by politics than science. The CDC's inflated numbers had lent credibility to the dire warnings of those who, as one of the study's researchers described, "have made up their minds that obesity and overweight are the biggest public health problem that we have to face." Now, "these numbers show that maybe it's not that big." So what of those who berated us about the "obesity epidemic," and worked to eliminate from our lives the choice to super size our extra value meals (Morgan Spurlock was only the most visible culprit in this conspiracy)? Will they reorder their public health priorities based on this new evidence of diminished risk?

Bill Maher, former host of Politically Incorrect (the subject of a cover story by Andrew Ferguson in THE WEEKLY STANDARD of October 27, 1997) and current host of HBO's Real Time, is devoted to the cause of obesity awareness, and is perhaps its most consistent spokesperson. Will he greet this study with relief, or will he simply ignore it? Maher's rants about a perceived conspiracy between agribusiness, the pharmaceutical industry, and the U.S. government all portend incredulity. He believes that "what the government advises people to eat is based on the contributions that certain agribusinesses make." This he told former HHS secretary Tommy Thompson on February 18 of this year, right after he asked, not even half in jest, "how could the terrorists make our food supply any more toxic than it already is?"

Maher's campaign against our freedom to super-size is at odds with his self-proclaimed libertarian politics. One might expect a man who believes in legalizing drugs, prostitution, and gay marriage to similarly support the right to eat at KFC. Though Maher is not a creature of consistency, hypocrisy is not a hanging offence. Still, inconsistency does not explain his efforts to force regime change on our eating habits; his one-man war against "high-fructose corn syrup. . . causing so much sickness in our country" is bizarre. (Although, relative to other causes Hollywood stars typically embrace, it almost seems reasonable.)

There is some reason to believe that Maher's crusade may have less to do with saving our lives than with saving the lives of millions of defenseless pigs, cows, and chickens. The Center for Consumer Freedom points out that Maher is a major booster for PETA. Maher's support for such radicals is well-documented and has, on occasion, produced such progressive statements as: "To those people who say, 'My father is alive because of animal experimentation,' I say, 'Yeah, well, good for you. This dog died so your father could live.' Sorry, but I am just not behind that kind of trade-off."

So now the New York Times and most other newspapers have reported the CDC's finding that those "who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight." Will Bill Maher disapprove of what we eat, but defend to the death our right to eat it?

Michael Goldfarb is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard