03/06/2007 02:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Personal Responsibility? Maybe Not So Much

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the government's response to obesity (or lack thereof) and I was rebuked with comments and emails, both here and on my own blog, about the role personal responsibility has in the American obesity epidemic. If I were I less of a realist, I might be inclined to think they're right.

But relying on people being to simply be responsible won't work and it never has. If it did, there wouldn't be an obesity epidemic. We wouldn't need laws to prevent drunk driving, or to mandate seatbelt use, speed limits or traffic regulations. And no one would die of smoking related diseases.

In order to save the government (read: taxpayers) money, we are forced to legislate laws that mandate what should be simple common sense. When we're spending billions of taxpayer's dollars per year on obesity-related illnesses, it seems to me that not only is it the government's responsibility to reduce the prevalence of obesity among Americans, I see it as their duty. As stewards of our money, shouldn't the government be doing all they can to reduce the amount of money spent on things like obesity? And isn't the best way to minimize the cost of obesity-related diseases reducing the amount of obesity? At the point where billions of taxpayers' dollars ($39 billion in 2003 alone) are at stake, should we gamble it all on the onus of personal responsibility alone?

I'm not saying personal responsibility doesn't have a place in the solution. If you're a parent fortunate enough to closely control the diet of your family through the all but archaic practice of the family dinner, then congratulations. If you have enough leisure time, motivation and access to safe facilities to make exercise not only a priority but a habit, then good for you. If you not only have access to fresh and healthy diet options, but the money to facilitate them, then you are ahead of the curve. We should all be so lucky. These characteristics unfortunately comprise an ideal that has, for the most part, dwindled into the realm of nostalgia for most of the country. Of course personal responsibility plays a role no matter what your situation, but I'm not ready to blame personal responsibility alone for turning June Cleaver into Rosanne.

To disregard the influence of our environment and culture on our decision-making is to disregard our humanity. We are all genetically predisposed, thanks to our hunter-gatherer lineage, to hoard calories when they are plentiful (hence our love of all things sweet) and expend energy only when necessary (hence the constant search for the best parking spot) in preparation for a famine that never comes. In fact, it's hard to believe that more of us aren't yet overweight since ordering take-out is decidedly less grueling than spearing a woolly mammoth. However, it would be foolish for anyone to take personal responsibility for that societal shift.

The chief proponents of the "personal responsibility" solution cleverly refer to themselves as "The Center for Consumer Freedom." This is an ironic, if not completely misleading, name when you realize that they are financed by the food and beverage industries to act as a third-party defense. As valiant defenders of consumer freedom they aggressively squelch any attempt to hold Big Business to account for saturating the marketplace with potentially harmful products. I mean, really, how could a consumer ever exercise his or her personal freedom without junk food marketers spending upwards of ten billion dollars a year to influence that "freedom"? Somehow the CCF has come to the conclusion that our freedom as consumers hinges on the industries unimpeded right to manipulate our environment, making their product the most recognizable, most inexpensive, and most importantly, the most unavoidable option. It's no coincidence that in most parts of the country, fast food outlets outnumber healthy options four to one. This is another fact that would be foolish for anyone to take personal responsibility for.

What we can take do to stem the problem, however, is to do what we can to educate policy-makers to do what is necessary to turn back the tide of this costly epidemic. And that is something I am willing to take personal responsibility for.