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Where government fits into finding a solution is a matter of no small dispute. After all, it's not like Americans don't have an inkling why they are getting fat. "People who are overweight know it," says Huckabee. "The denial is different from a lot of denials. We don't deny that it's there. We deny that it affects us."
That's why there are plenty who argue that the blame--and the answer--must lie squarely with fat people themselves. When Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, attacked junk food in schools two years ago, then Democratic Senator Zell Miller, whose home state of Georgia is the location of Coca-Cola headquarters, scoffed, "Our kids are not obese because of what they are eating in our lunchrooms at school. They are obese, frankly, because they sit around on their duffs watching MTV and playing video games, and to do something about that requires the role of the parents, not the role of the Federal Government." His Georgia colleague, Republican Saxby Chambliss, was equally dismissive of Harkin's plan to set federal nutrition guidelines for schools: "We would be a lot better off to spend that $6 million to educate children about what they ought to eat, both in school and out of school, and if we think that by cutting them off at school they are not going to go to the 7-Eleven as soon as school is out and pick up these items, then we are kidding ourselves." There was a none-too-subtle message in the title of Republican-sponsored legislation aimed at protecting the food industry from obesity-related lawsuits: the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act of 2005. Nicknamed the Cheeseburger Bill, it passed last October, with yeas outnumbering nays 2 to 1.
Mindful of anything that may look like the heavy hand of a nanny state at work, George W. Bush's Administration has focused its anti-obesity efforts primarily on public education. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson wore a pedometer to tout his department's Small Step initiative. But pressure for bigger strides is building. Says Harkin: "This is not just a personal problem. It's a public-health problem." He wants the Agriculture Department to regulate all food--not just meals--being served in schools. The rules now are set at the state and local levels, with widely varying standards, although the torrent of state legislation suggests that everyone is looking to go healthier. Harkin and others want to give the Federal Trade Commission more say over the $10 billion a year that the food industry spends advertising to children. Some in Congress are pushing to require nutritional labeling on restaurant menus, as was done for packaged foods. There are restaurants that print the information voluntarily, but the restaurant lobby opposes requiring it.
Meanwhile, food companies are trying to get out in front of the issue. McDonald's did away with supersizing. Coca-Cola no longer advertises on television programs aimed at viewers younger than age 12. In its ads on children's television, Kraft pitches white-meat chicken Lunchables rather than Oreos. Food packaging, from mac-and-cheese to soup and pancake mix, offers tips for more healthful preparation.