Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fat, the new tobacco -- July 30, 2009 column


During World War II, an ad in Sunday newspapers urged moms to “take a modern look at candy – as a food.”

The 1944 ad by the Council on Candy of the National Confectioners’ Association shows a cheese sandwich, a glass of milk and an apple next to a glossy chocolate bar. The headline: “Modern partners in eating.” Below the picture is a six-point “Nutritional Platform of Candy.”

I spotted the page at a flea market, bought it and had it framed. Candy as a food group – yes! Thank you, Greatest Generation.

These days, dark chocolate wins nutritional points for its flavonoids, but we generally see candy and other sugary treats as culprits in our super-sized society.

Two-thirds of adults and one-fifth of children are either obese or overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which just concluded a four-day “Weight of the Nation” conference. The CDC issued 24 recommendations to help communities fight the “obesity epidemic.”

Brace yourself. If obesity is a national epidemic, “crisis” can’t be far behind. The next front in the health wars is obesity, and it’s going to look a lot like the fight against tobacco. That’s good news in that the tobacco wars taught us how to change attitudes and behavior, but we’ll need to guard against demonizing people or foods.

The medical costs of obesity in the United States are staggering -- $147 billion annually, according to a new CDC study. Another new study, from the University of Virginia and the Urban Institute, put the price tag higher -- $200 billion a year. That report also said health insurance premiums for non-obese workers are $26 billion a year higher because of the medical costs of the obese.

Clearly, we’ve got to do something. The Virginia-Urban Institute study proposes a 10-percent tax on fattening foods that it says will raise $500 billion in revenue over 10 years. If combined with a subsidy to lower the price of fruits and vegetables 10 percent, the net revenue still would be more than $350 billion over the period, according to authors Carolyn L. Engelhard, Arthur Garson Jr. and Stan Dorn. Engelhard and Garson are at Virginia, where Garson is former dean of the university’s medical school. Dorn is at the Urban Institute.

The CDC report doesn’t mention higher taxes, but it cites the success of the tobacco-control model in other areas. Among the recommendations: restricting what’s sold in vending machines in schools and other public facilities as well as limiting advertisements of less-healthy foods and beverages. The Virginia-Urban Institute study proposes more aggressive strategies, including stronger warning labels on fattening foods.

Critics of the Big Brother approach will howl that food isn’t tobacco, and they’re right. For one thing, nobody has to smoke or use tobacco products to survive, but people do have to eat. And what they eat often is determined by personal economics, culture and proximity. Many inner city residents don’t have access to good stores with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

And while some would argue the food industry is just selling what people want, there’s a rising chorus that it bears responsibility for rising obesity. Dr. David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, argues in his new book, “The End of Overeating” that the industry produces highly processed foods that contain loads of salt, sugar and fat, conditioning people to want more.

The Virginia-Urban Institute report says, “While fattening food does not contain a clearly addictive chemical like nicotine, there is significant and increasing evidence that the food industry adjusts food content, triggering hard to control cravings that increase consumption of fattening food.”

It’s worth remembering that obesity is not just a matter of people lacking self-discipline. We also need to rethink the government’s role in our food.

Changing the way people eat will be tough and more complicated than convincing people to give up smoking. There’s the inconvenient truth that some fattening foods – like chocolate -- are beneficial in moderation.

The 1944 ad touted candy as a morale builder. The ad included a “War Note,” saying that all Army and Navy field rations contained candy, and 50 percent of certain kinds of candies were being set aside for the armed forces.

“So when you can’t get exactly the candy you want, remember it’s helping to build energy and morale for G.I. Joe and G.I. Jane…”

The G.I.s got free packs of cigarettes too.

(Marsha Mercer is an independent columnist writing from Washington. You can contact her at
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Obama an impostor? Not in my country -- July 23, 2009 column


You’ve probably seen the video. A woman holds up a small American flag along with a plastic bag containing her birth certificate and rants at her congressman for not pushing President Barack Obama about his citizenship.

“He is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya,” the woman declares. The crowd at the town meeting is clearly with her, cheering and applauding.

Then she wails, “I want my country back.” Aha, so that’s what this “birther” business is about.

There’s nothing like fear to make people yearn for a simpler time and place, and we’re living through a frightening, complicated period. Not only are we in a severe economic downturn and two wars, but also the first black president is trying to restructure the economy, health care, banking and the auto industry.

His political foes claim the president is turning the country socialist, and they stoke worries of higher taxes, massive deficits and Big Brother controlling daily life.

Anyone who upsets the status quo as Obama is doing has to expect a backlash, but what’s happening this summer is troubling. Right-wing Web sites, cable TV and radio talkers are using tactics of hate and desperation to stir emotion and undermine Obama’s legitimacy as president.

Opinion shapers who know better – Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and others -- are encouraging the fearful to believe the falsehood that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. In pursuit of ratings, clicks and cash, these talkers and sites insinuate that Obama is an impostor who sailed into office under false colors. They impugn the president’s motives and suggest he doesn’t have American interests at heart.

People are entitled to their opinions but not to their own facts.

Despite evidence to the contrary, “birthers” argue that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Other contend that since both his parents weren’t U.S. citizens, he doesn’t meet the qualification in Article II of the Constitution that a president must be a “natural born citizen.” The Constitution doesn’t define “natural born,” nor has Congress. Federal courts so far have declined to hear cases involving Obama’s eligibility to be president.

In the video, Republican Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware quietly tells his angry constituent that the president is a citizen -- and the crowd boos. The woman stands up again and urges everyone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance right then and there, and they do.

Liz Cheney, a daughter of the former vice president and a former State Department official, was on Larry King Live defending those who believe that Obama is ineligible to be president. Asked if she thinks Obama was born in Kenya, Cheney said no, but she empathized with those who think that way, saying that people are increasingly uncomfortable with a president who is reluctant to defend the nation overseas.

Democratic strategist James Carville criticized Cheney for failing to declare the citizenship question ludicrous.

During the presidential campaign, Obama posted online a birth certificate showing he was born in the state of Hawaii. Birthers charged that the document was a forgery. After a fact-checking group examined it and said it was indeed real, birthers complained it wasn’t a “long form” certificate that would show the hospital’s and doctor’s names.

Last October, the director of the Hawaii Department of Health issued a statement saying that she had “personally seen and verified” that the department has Obama’s original birth certificate on record.

A Honolulu reporter went through the city’s newspaper archives from 1961 and found an announcement in two local papers of the birth of a son to Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama of 6085 Kalanianole Highway on Aug. 4.

Both and have run to ground assorted non-citizenship rumors, finding them false. The “noble truth,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, is that
Obama was born in Hawaii.

Still, some Web sites champion the few military men who have filed lawsuits claiming that Obama is not the lawful commander in chief. They make heroes of the few members of Congress who have gotten in on the act.

Rep. Bill Posey, Republican of Florida, introduced a bill that would require future presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates. Nine House Republicans have joined Posey’s cause. Like Liz Cheney, most say they personally think Obama is a U.S. citizen, but that this requirement will head off questions in the future. Wink, wink.

Now I want my country back.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Health care RX depends on trust -- July 16, 2009 column


As Congress struggles over various health-care reform proposals, a lot of numbers get thrown around.

Health care is a $2.5 trillion industry, one-sixth of the U.S. economy. Reform could cost upwards of a trillion dollars over 10 years. An estimated 50 million people lack health insurance, and 17 million could remain uninsured after reform.

Here’s a number that may trump the others: 93.

That’s the percentage of Americans who say it’s extremely or very important that their health plan cover any medical test or treatment they and their doctor think necessary, according to the latest USA Today-Gallup poll, released Tuesday.

The near unanimity of opinion says that the health care debate is fundamentally about trust. Can people trust that President Obama’s revamped system will allow them to have all the tests and treatments they believe necessary? Or should people trust Republican opponents who argue that reform will limit access to health care?

In the trust battle, both sides have ammunition. Congressional Republicans have an edge in worries that President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package may not work. If the behemoth stimulus is a debacle, as some critics already claim, will a huge health-care overhaul be one too?

The president has the advantage of the bully pulpit, which he used this week to make the case for trust indirectly. In Michigan, he claimed the troubled economy as his own and leveled with auto workers that their jobs aren’t coming back due to changes in the economy. At the White House, nurses, a group everybody trusts, stood with him as he prodded Congress on health-care reform.

In Michigan, Obama was responding to critics who complain that he’s still blaming his predecessor for the nation’s economic woes.

“I love these folks who helped get us in this mess and then suddenly say, `Well this is Obama’s economy.’ That’s fine. Give it to me. My job is to solve problems, not to stand on the sidelines and harp and gripe,” he said.

In the Rose Garden, Obama stressed that the status quo in health care is unsustainable and cannot continue. He noted that the American Nurses Association, with 2.9 million members, supports a public insurance plan option as an alternative to private health insurance.

“Nurses aren’t in health care to get rich. Last I checked, they’re in it to care for all of us, from the time they bring a new life into this world to the moment they ease the pain of those who pass from it,” he said.

And he said, “few understand why we have to pass reform as intimately as our nation’s nurses.” Nurses often have to “buck up” patients and young medical residents, and now it’s time to buck up the Senate and House to pass reform before the August recess, he said.

When Gallup asked people whom they trust most to make changes in health care, 45 percent said doctors and hospitals. One third trusted Obama and congressional Democrats, hardly a ringing endorsement. They fared well, however, compared with congressional Republicans who gained the trust of just 10 percent. Only 4 percent said they trusted insurance companies most.

Obama suggested that those who support the status quo on health care are really backing insurance companies, whose premiums over the last decade have risen three times faster than wages.

Republicans argue that reform not only will limit access to medical care but will kill jobs, raise taxes and lead to a government takeover of health care – so what’s the rush?

Here’s Rep. Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, Tuesday on the House Democrats’ bill, “Their bill kills health care as we know it in America today.”

Those are strong words, and Obama continues to reassure people that people who like their doctors and health insurance will be able to keep both, and they’ll actually pay less. Reform will reduce costs, raise quality and make insurance companies treat people fairly, Obama says, and it will include an optional public plan.

The president and the Democrats in Congress have the numbers to pass a health-care overhaul without Republican support. But reform is about more than numbers. This battle is for the people’s trust.

(Marsha Mercer is an independent columnist writing from Washington. You can contact her at

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tracing the arc of history -- July 9, 2009 column


Two news stories this week traced the arc of African-American history.

At the top of the arc was the memorial service for Michael Jackson. The King of Pop shattered racial barriers and transcended race. He became -- if not “the greatest entertainer that ever lived,” as Motown founder Berry Gordy said -- one of the most influential and globally popular entertainers of our time.

About 31 million people in this country watched Tuesday’s memorial service from Los Angeles on TV, not bad for a weekday when most people supposedly were at work.

Making far less splash was news from Washington that the House had finally recognized the African-American slaves who built the Capitol more than 200 years ago. The House voted 399 to 1 Tuesday to direct the architect of the Capitol to install a marker in the Capitol Visitor Center acknowledging the labor of slaves.

A marker – even one made of sandstone quarried by slaves – doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a step toward reconciling the past and present. You could argue that we’re able to accept benighted aspects of our shared national history now because of triumphs by African Americans like Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. A companion bill is in the Senate.

The measures’ sponsors, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, head a task force charged with bringing to light the contributions of enslaved Americans during the Capitol’s construction. Lewis and Lincoln have ordered plaques for the House and Senate wings of the Capitol. The visitor center marker will help educate generations about the sacrifices that went into construction.

Records indicate that about 400 slaves worked on the Capitol during the 1790s, but it’s thought slaves worked decades longer. Masters rented their slaves for about $60 a year, and slaves, working sunup to sundown six days a week, performed some of the toughest jobs. They quarried stone, sawed logs and baked bricks.

Slave labor was not confined to the Capitol. A 2005 report from the Office of the Architect of the Capitol begins:

“No one will ever know how many slaves helped to build the United States Capitol -- or the White House; or the homes of founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; or Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.”

Richard Baker, the Senate historian, and Kenneth Kato of the House office of history and preservation, explain that indifference by early historians toward slaves, coupled with poor record-keeping and “the silence of voiceless classes” prevent us from knowing much about the enslaved men and women who ironically helped build the Temple of Freedom, as the Capitol was called in the 19th century.

Lewis, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, said, “We look back today not to open old wounds, but to ensure that we tell the story, the whole story, the complete story of those slaves so their toils are never forgotten.”

And, while some would rather forget deplorable days of slavery, Lewis said, “Slavery is part of our nation’s history of which we are not proud. However, we should not run or hide from it.”

Congress has lagged the states in addressing slavery. Legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama, among others, have apologized for slavery. The Senate passed a non-binding apology last month, but it included a clarification that the measure did not authorize or support reparations for descendants of slaves. The Congressional Black Caucus opposes the resolution because of the disclaimer.

At the memorial service, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, talked about her proposed resolution to honor Jackson as an American legend, music icon and humanitarian “forever and forever and forever and forever and forever.” Her resolution cites numerous charitable gifts and trips Jackson made to fight hunger and ease medical crises, including HIV/AIDS.

This is a sensitive issue for some in Congress. Rep. Peter King, Republican of New York, posted a Web video blasting Michael Jackson as a lowlife and pervert. King has refused to back down despite harsh criticism from Jackson’s fans.

Jackson said in a documentary in 2003 that he let children sleep in his bed but denied there was anything sexual about it. He was acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005.

Some members of Congress may find it politically difficult in 2009 to honor Michael Jackson or to approve a slavery apology they find flawed. But almost everybody agrees it’s time, at long last, to honor the forgotten slaves who toiled to build our Temple of Freedom.

(Marsha Mercer is an independent columnist writing from Washington. Contact her at
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

We, the people, at Mount Vernon -- July 2, 2009 column


Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home 16 miles south of the nation’s capital, is the country’s most popular historic estate. It's easy to see why: educational exhibits, acres of beautiful grounds and gardens, a magnificent mansion, outbuildings and unspoiled river views.

What Diann and Simon, friends who live in England, and I didn’t expect when we joined the tourist flock the other day was to be moved to tears. The visit certainly didn’t start out that way.

The first thing we noticed about our fellow tourists is that we Americans are, well, loud. Our summer touring plumage tends toward bright T-shirts, shorts and sneakers or flip-flops, and we favor those nearby with our full-throated comments on everything from the heat to the state of our feet.

After standing in line 40 minutes, we finally reached the mansion where Washington lived and died. Human border collies herded us expertly through the house in short order. Mount Vernon has very knowledgeable guides, but their top job during peak times evidently is to keep the line moving to the next room. To be fair, a million people visit Mount Vernon annually, so you can’t expect to lollygag in Washington’s bedroom while others are waiting outside in the sun.

Standing on Washington’s porch – all the chairs were occupied by our countrymen -- we admired the timeless vista of the Potomac River and the forested Maryland shoreline. People took pictures or talked their kin walking elsewhere on the grounds in for a landing.

We headed to Washington’s tomb where a wreath-laying ceremony takes place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily from April through October.

About 50 men, women and children whose accents said they came from around the country chatted and lounged near the brick building where Washington, his wife, Martha, and other family members are interred. An historical interpreter said she would select people from the crowd to participate in the ceremony. Uh-oh, I thought, this could be cheesy.

But then the guide asked if any military combat veterans were present. A white-haired man squared his shoulders and stepped forward, his two young grandsons close behind him. He had fought in Vietnam. She asked for non-combat vets, and two younger men came to the front.

And that’s when something surprising happened. We, the people, quieted down and started paying attention.

The guide thanked the men for their military service, and people applauded warmly. Then, she did something at once simple and extraordinary in our post-9/11world. She unlocked the padlock and opened the iron gates to Washington’s tomb.

Everyone stood a little taller as the Marine led us in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Navy man read the final paragraph of Washington’s circulating letter to the states. The Vietnam vet and his grandsons placed a boxwood wreath in the tomb.

In his letter of June 8, 1783, Washington expressed hopes that God would protect the states and would cultivate in the citizens “a spirit of subordination and obedience to government” … that people would “entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens … and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field.”

Washington wrote that he hoped that God would help the citizens dispense justice, love mercy and emulate divine charity, humility and temperament. Otherwise, “we can never hope to be a happy nation.”

The passage is sometimes mistakenly called “Washington’s prayer.” Several versions exist with editorial embellishments that Washington did not write. The adulterated versions include invocations to “Almighty God,” “Thee,” “Thou” and a reference to praying in Jesus Christ’s name.

Some conservative members of Congress recently cited the faux prayer to knock President Barack Obama for saying that the United States is not a Christian, Muslim or a Jewish nation.

On this June day, though, patriotism and the dream of the patriarch of America trumped modern politics. Some tourists found themselves getting choked up.

Tough times like we’re having bring out feelings of isolation and separateness. Our sense of shining American possibility dims amid massive bankruptcies, foreclosures and layoffs. But here was “the father of our country” reminding us of our rich, shared heritage. That moment, we united as Americans.

Diann, a Texas native, married her English husband more than three decades ago and has lived in England all these years. She sometimes thinks she has more in common with the British than Americans.

But when she said, “I pledge allegiance,” tears sprang to her eyes. “Standing there,” she said later, “I thought, these are my people.”

As the crowd, still quiet and reverential, walked from the tomb, the Vietnam vet rubbed his eyes and said, “We weren’t expecting anything like that. We were just going to take a picture.”

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.