Weighing America and Finding It Wanting
David Kessler's anti-obesity crusade.
Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44
David A. Kessler is a man of science--former dean of the medical school at Yale and a physician himself--but he is also a man of pudge, so not long ago he decided to combine the two interests in an experiment.
"I walked into a bakery," he writes in his new book, The End of Overeating, "and asked for two semi-sweet chocolate-chip cookies." He took them home and looked upon them. And Kessler saw that they were good. Better than good.
"They were thick and gooey--chunks of chocolate filled the craters of the cookies and rose into peaks."
He placed them on his work table, an arm's length away. "I was fixated on those cookies," he writes. Without noticing, he inched his right hand closer to the cookies, just within reach of the overbrimming craters, the peaks rising chocolaty to the sky.
He went upstairs. "But even from that safe distance, I could not fully shake the image of the cookies." Yet he didn't eat them! He left the house, "and I felt triumphant." Then he went to a coffee shop and ordered "an orange-chocolate cookie and ate it at once." There his experiment ended.
As rigorous scientific research goes, this isn't Louis Pasteur. Kessler the author moves on, and the reader can't be quite sure what the experiment was meant to illustrate. Even if you concede that Americans are fat--and you'll get no argument from me--and that this widespread (heh) and chronic obesity qualifies as an "epidemic," it's not clear what David Kessler's individual powerlessness before a cookie has to do with anything beyond David Kessler. But that, it turns out, is just the point. Kessler has said in interviews that his weight yo-yos between 160 and 230 pounds. Now he is intent on making his difficulties our own, so that the means of overcoming them will apply not only to himself but to the rest of us too. For in addition to being a man of science and a man of calories, Kessler is also a man of government, an activist and believer in public policy's limitless capacity to improve mankind.
Though his most prominent public role was in the 1990s, as director of the Food and Drug Administration under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he is a figure more suited to the present moment. The tobacco bill that President Obama signed in June, to cite one example, is mostly a collection of measures that Kessler tried but failed to enact during his years at the FDA. The legislation doubles--triples! quadruples!--the agency's regulatory power, greatly restricting the range of permissible activity for tobacco companies and their sales outlets, and making life even more difficult than it already is for smokers who want to smoke.
The tobacco bill was vintage Kessler not only in its programs but in its premise: that dark forces of commerce are getting rich off a citizenry powerless to resist their sophisticated manipulations. The same view shapes most of the current administration's efforts to reform the everyday behavior of Americans along cleaner, more healthful, and more rational lines. Because we drive too many miles in the wrong kind of cars, use the wrong kinds of light bulbs and tools, mismanage our finances, garden with the wrong fertilizer, eat too much of the wrong foods, and so on and so on--all with far-reaching consequences that we refuse to calculate--Congress and federal agencies are taking greater interest than ever before in the habits of their fellow citizens.
Kessler's present preoccupation, the evils of food, is nicely timed. At last count his book had spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list. During the last week of July he was the subject of two special reports on ABC, one on Good Morning America ("Food Addiction Confessions") and another on Nightline ("Hooked on Food"). And the Centers for Disease Control held its first national conference on obesity, cutely titled "Weight of the Nation," to address the subject from a perspective identical to Kessler's. His thesis is that sugar, salt, and fat--the lures with which the food industry entices Americans into obesity--are the new tobacco, ripe for the same regulatory regime that has bankrupted companies, upended livelihoods, and put the centuries-old custom of smoking on a fast track to ultimate extinction. In this view, the food industry, health care reform, and American eating habits are all tangled together, creating another opportunity to make us live more sensibly. One leftwing blogger for the Washington Post outlined the reasoning: