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Knox News - Physician Congressman Scott DesJarlais Rails Against Tax Dollars for Obesity Campaign

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By Michael Collins

A recent court decision that struck down New York City's ban on big sugary soft drinks is a sign the courts see it that way, too, the congressman said.

"I think it does send a message that both people and the courts reject that aggressive government overreach -- certainly it was evident in New York," said the Republican from Jasper, Tenn.

DesJarlais is looking closely at the New York ruling as he contemplates refiling a bill that would stop what he calls "taxpayer-funded attack ads" against soft drinks and other food and beverages.

DesJarlais first filed the legislation last year amid reports that $230 million in federal economic-stimulus funds had been used to pay for anti-obesity efforts that, in many cases, targeted the soft-drink and fast-food industries. Industry groups, including the Beverage Association of Tennessee, have called the ads unfair and misleading.

The bill went nowhere, so DesJarlais is trying to decide whether he should try again or look for an alternative way to tackle the issue. One option would be to amend a different bill to achieve the same goal. Another option would be to delve into the issue through congressional hearings on government waste.

The court ruling and the federal government's cost-cutting directive that went into effect last month, the congressman says, would seem to provide "a target-rich environment for going after government overregulation of this type."

"The further we look into federal tax dollars being used as antagonists against American businesses, we're going to probably find a playing field that's going to look in favor of the taxpayers and against the government," he said.

In the New York case, State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling struck down the city's ban on selling sodas and other sugary drinks in cups larger than 16 ounces. The judge said the ban was "arbitrary and capricious" because it had too many loopholes and applied to some sugary drinks but not others. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the city will appeal.

The New York City Department of Health initiated the anti-obesity campaign that prompted DesJarlais' legislation. The campaign, funded with $15.5 million in federal stimulus money, included a series of videos, ads and billboards featuring graphic images illustrating how poor diets can lead to health problems. One of the videos showed a man drinking what appeared to be a glass of fat to draw a parallel between sugary drinks and diabetes. Another ad featured images of an amputee sitting near cups of soda.

DesJarlais cried foul, contending the campaign was misleading, and used taxpayer dollars to go after "perfectly legal, FDA-approved companies and products."

DesJarlais' fight against an anti-obesity campaign might strike some people as odd, given that he's a physician. He agrees obesity is a concern, and conversations about the issue should take place between individuals and their physicians, as well as in the home and schools.

"The message needs to be moderation," DesJarlais said. "It certainly is common sense that most things in moderation are not harmful. But I think these ads that were taxpayer funded would give the impression that if you drink a Coca-Cola, you're going to lose a leg. I think that's disingenuous and an overreach of government propaganda."


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