Obesity and 'Public Health'?
by David Boaz
David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says, "Obesity is a critical public health problem in our country."
Wrong. Obesity is a problem for many people, but it is not a public health problem. By calling it one, however, Thompson can promise that we, the taxpayers, will pay for everyone's diet programs, stomach surgery, and behavioral counseling. Get out your wallet.
The meaning of "public health" has sprawled out lazily over the decades. Once, it referred to the project of securing health benefits that were public: clean water, improved sanitation, and the control of epidemics through treatment, quarantine, and immunization. Public health officials worked to drain swamps that might breed mosquitoes and thus spread malaria. They strove to ensure that water supplies were not contaminated with cholera, typhoid, or other diseases. The U.S. Public Health Service began as the Marine Hospital Service, and one of its primary functions was ensuring that sailors didn't expose domestic populations to new and virulent illnesses from overseas.