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Supersize America: Whose job to fight obesity?

Banning extra-large sugary sodas. Blocking fast-food restaurants in some neighborhoods. Requiring calorie counts on menus. Kicking snack foods out of public schools. Are anti-obesity campaigns crossing the line into nanny state intrusion?   


Calories are listed on pastries at a Panera Bread in New York City. In an effort to fight obesity, the city requires chain restaurants to post calories on menus.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the latest elected official to seek to use the power of government to slim down Americans' waistlines. But he's hardly the first.

Before he raised eyebrows by proposing to ban the sale of sugary sodas bigger than 16 ounces at New York's restaurants, delis, cinemas, and stadiums, officials elsewhere have tried other strategies for fighting the obesity war. They've enforced moratoriums on new fast-food outlets in certain neighborhoods. They've required eateries to print calorie counts of menu items, and they've kicked sodas and snack foods out of public schools.

The sharp rise in obesity rates that marked the 1980s and '90s has flattened in recent years, but researchers disagree over how much difference such government interventions have made. The result is that policy proposals like Mr. Bloomberg's tend to be greeted by equal parts cheers and jeers – with many public-health activists giving them the benefit of the doubt, and many restaurateurs and food purveyors slamming such intercessions as "nanny state" limits on individual choice.

In between is the US public, collectively heavier than ever, trying to sort out for themselves whether public-health liabilities that officials attribute to obesity warrant intrusion into a behavior as private as eating and drinking.

One is Angela Hutchinson, a casting director and, on this day, a patron at McDonald's in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Here, calories are printed on the menu for all to see, courtesy of a state law that since 2010 has applied to restaurant chains. Ms. Hutchinson says she routinely checks the calorie count when she eats out, but not here.


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