Saturday, February 02, 2008

Matters Weighty and Trivial

D pulled this item up on The Smoking Gun this morning:

Mississippi Pols Seek To Ban Fats
New bill would make it illegal for restaurants to serve the obese

FEBRUARY 1--Mississippi legislators this week introduced a bill that would make it illegal for state-licensed restaurants to serve obese patrons. Bill No. 282, a copy of which you'll find below, is the brainchild of three members of the state's House of Representatives, Republicans W. T. Mayhall, Jr. and John Read, and Democrat Bobby Shows. The bill, which is likely dead on arrival, proposes that the state's Department of Health establish weight criteria after consultation with Mississippi's Council on Obesity. It does not detail what penalties an eatery would face if its grub was served to someone with an excessive body mass index.


When a bill like this comes up, my usual reaction is mystification. What possesses an elected official to make himself (herself--but I'm hereafter going with the masculine for simplicity's sake) look absolutely ridiculous with such trivia? And why, for the love of all that is sane and reasonable, do legislators in a state with a considerable body of real woes--high poverty and low education to name just two--choose to pick at something so picayune? That, of course, comes before the irritation that hits when I recall that the nonsense these folks are contemplating constitutes a whopping intrusion into the lives and liberties of the citizenry.

Some years ago here in Geawgia, a state legislator sponsored a bill that would have required all restaurants in the state to serve sweet tea (a concoction already so prevalent that it gives Coca-Cola a pretty good run for its money in any contest for Official State Beverage.) A recent transplant to the state, I promptly made use of internet access to fire off my first ever irate email to my representative, requesting that my tax dollars not be wasted on such boondoggles. I also grumbled privately that no legislator who sponsored such balderdash would ever get my vote again (fortunately for that guy, he isn't my headache.)

But let's look at such matters seriously and not merely with an individualistic curmudgeon's eye. Why not mandate sweet tea or exclusionary restaurant practices? (Lordy, I just had a momentary vision of the lunch counter sit-ins for this one. We don't learn, do we?)

In the case of the sweet tea bill, the reasons why no legislator with any sense (or sense of self-preservation) ought to even consider such a thing should be self-evident:

1. He works for us. We the people expect just what most of us put in--a solid day's work with no shenanigans-- while the legislature is in session. Is it too much to ask that our elected representatives have left behind the Class Clown act in high school or at least at the frat?
2. It constitutes an unneccessary and onerous intrusion into the lives of citizens.
3. It is completely superfluous as most Georgia restauranteurs, knowing well on which side their bread is buttered, provide sweet tea to their customers anyway. (Now, a little subtle encouragement to provide decent unsweetened iced tea for those of us who don't find 30% syrup refreshing would be nice. But I think we the people can handle that matter just fine.)

Now, let us turn to Mississippi's Bill No. 282, if only as an exercise in civics and our own amusement. Obviously (1) and (2) above apply and the vast majority of state legislators there will recognize this and laugh the bill out of session. But as there are apparently those in the government who think this sort of thing a Good Idea, let's go The Handmaid's Tale route with it and imagine the potential fallout of such a bill actually passing.

[I should perhaps interject here that no one would confuse me with Twiggy (think Nicole Richie with panache, kids, if the reference throws you.) Nonetheless, I am all for improving one's health and dropping that spare tire. I'm working on it myself. But let's get real: we tubbies have to eat, too; folks occasionally need a quick bite away from home, and outside dining doesn't have to constitute a full-scale arterial assault.]

Getting back on track, let's imagine this bill passed. As the article points out, penalties for violations are not mentioned in the bill. There's a Handmaid's Tale sitch in the making for sure, but I find it far less entertaining to think about than some of the enforcement ramifications:

A. Restaurant Level
1. By what guidelines do we decide who is too fat to be served? Weight? BMI? The ability to "pinch an inch?"
2. D outweighs me, but I have longer fingers and can probably get a bigger handful of skin. Do I have to wait outside while he gets a pass? Can he slip me some breadsticks with impunity, provided he's paid for them and it's off-premeses?
3. Should we all start carrying our latest BP and cholesterol scores with us to help the restaurant staff in decision making?
4. Whose responsibility is it, actually? The manager's? The cook's? The cashier's?
5. If a crew member is obese, is he DQ'ed for the employee discount?
6. What if the manager's the fat one? Can the crew refuse to feed him? The food service unions may need to open several hotlines to deal with some of these questions.

B. Law Enforcement Level
1. How are the authorities going to keep up with violators? Will they stage sting operations, as with liquor distributors suspected of selling to minors? Will a squadron of overweight undercover agents patrol restaurants, trying to get served? (Ooh--here's an idea: we'll call them the Chubby Checkers. I know of a good embroidery shop if they'd like to have jackets and ball caps.)
2. While I hate to employ an old cliche, might not this law lead to an overall simultaneous decline in the donut industry and police ethics? (Sorry, Big E. I had to go there.)

C. State Legislature Level
1. Shall Subway be excluded from the ban? (We'll call it Jared's Amendment.)
2. Is this contingent on them serving only "7 under 6" items to the overweight? Are all bets off if they capitulate to demands for mayonnaise or double meat?
3. Should they first be required to end the "Family Guy" sponsorship, at least until the artists start drawing the title character a bit thinner?
4. What about that new salad place up the road?

That, in a Brazil nut shell, pretty much sums up why I consider legislation of this sort unduly burdensome and an unneccessary intrusion in our lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness--or, at least, pursuit of a sandwich when caught downtown at lunchtime. Besides, if the would-be Nannies in the Mississipi legislature had their way, every short-order kitchen within ten miles of the Georgia line would go under as the locals stampeded over in search of the nearest Chick-Fil-A. That would be good for us, but not for them; moreover, I'm afraid that it would ultimately undermine the presumed intent of getting Mississippians to shed those extra pounds.

So lighten up, guys! You're probably better paid than the average Mississipian as it is. Start earning your keep by dealing with the state's problems in a sensible and more importantly Constitutional fashion, and they might just decide to keep you on.

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