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Debate Prep —

October 22, 2012

Warning: This post reflects the views of Atchka/Shannon and not Fierce, Freethinking Fatties. The subject and nature of this post is political, albeit in the context of the fat panic (aka the obesity epidemic). Proceed at your own risk.

Regular readers know that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and have irked some of our more conservative readers in the past with this post that touches on my downright disdain for the Tea Party*. Likewise, if you’re my friend on Facebook, you may have noticed that nearly every single thing I post reinforces my support for President Barack Obama and an across-the-board sweep of Congress.

Personally, I’m politically partisan and see the Republican Party as largely representing the economic interests of corporations and the wealthy, while I see the Democratic Party as defending the working class and small businesses.

Although my political principles are set in stone, the intersection of politics and obesity does provide me one avenue from which I am willing to transcend political loyalty. Less than one month after the launch of Fierce Fatties, I wrote this post discussing how the Republican Party has been a far more respectful of fat people than the Democratic Party, particularly in the coverage at The Huffington Post.

In that piece, I explain how the Democratic Party can easily surpass Republicans on issues of obesity and health if they would simply respect our bodily autonomy, just as they have on gay marriage and abortion. I see this unfortunate situation as a matter of tweaking perceptions within the Democratic Party, rather than turning my back on it all together.

This election year, however, there is one race where I feel forced to root for Democratic failure because of a candidate’s record on weight issues. I desperately want the Democrats to have a strong Senate majority come November 7th, but Arizona Senate candidate Richard Carmona is an insufferable anti-obesity asswipe.

What’s a partisan to do?

First, a little history.

Richard Carmona was Surgeon General of the United States under the George W. Bush Administration from 2002 to 2006. During our Strong4Life campaign, I created a detailed timeline of the War on Fat (and the inevitable profiteering), which explains how Carmona launched the opening salvo against fat people.

On March 2, 2004, Carmona delivered an address to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation titled “The Growing Epidemic of Childhood Obesity.” Bear in mind that the most recent evidence from the 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has shown, yet again, that obesity rates in children have been stable since 1999.

And yet, five years after obesity rates leveled off, Carmona declared a war on fat kids that continues to this day. Then, in March 2006, during his final year in office, Carmona gave a lecture at the University of South Carolina that he still cites as his most brilliant strategic maneuver.

America’s obesity epidemic will dwarf the threat of terrorism if the nation does not reduce the number of people who are severely overweight. Obesity is the terror within. Unless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9-11 or any other terrorist attempt. Where will our soldiers and sailors and airmen come from? Where will our policemen and firemen come from if the youngsters today are on a trajectory that says they will be obese, laden with cardiovascular disease, increased cancers and a host of other diseases when they reach adulthood? [emphasis mine]

According to the Boston Globe, “The surgeon general offered few specific solutions but said public policy reforms would not be helpful in curbing obesity, explaining that common-sense health decisions cannot be legislated.”

At the Commonwealth Club of California two years after this declaration, Carmona explained how the press repeatedly asked him about his greatest challenge as Surgeon General, fully expecting to hear about bioterrorism. Instead, Carmona promoted his pet project through panic-driven hyperbole:

We struggled to get traction because at a time when we’re at war and at a time when there’s so many competing interests, obesity really isn’t a sexy thing. But I had to be smart as Surgeon General and I started learning that it wasn’t always about the science, it’s about how you spin that science. So when you present childhood obesity as an issue over self from science, sometimes [it] falls on deaf ears. [emphasis mine]

The results were indisputable, as every newspaper carried some form of the “terror within” claim. Carmona boasted, “That resonated. Got in every paper. ‘Surgeon General says this is a terror and equated it to terrorism.'”

So it was Richard Carmona who launched the contemporary War on Fat and identified the enemy combatants: fat bodies.

And yet, at this same speech, Carmona offered a rather nuanced explanation for the increase in obesity rates that implicate anything but a terror within:

The social determinants of health, which are so important and are extricably [sp] intertwined with the health of the nation. You can’t fix the health problem until you deal with the socio-economic determinants of health. They have to be done in tandem. If you do one or the other it’s not going to advance the health significantly as a nation, and therefore will not decrease the disease and economic burden that we experience in the nation. [emphasis mine]

Carmona seems to understand that whatever the state of obesity in the United States, the driving force seems to be the social determinants of health, a concept endorsed by the World Health Organization and which I explained at-length in this post.

Yet, when defining the social determinants of health are, Carmona simply rehashes the usual suspects: kids leading sedentary lifestyles; playing video games rather than playing outside; single-parent homes; latchkey kids; and kids who “eat indiscriminately” or don’t have access to the “right foods.”

While the social determinants of health can have an impact on those issues, the real underlying causes are the complex cultural, political and socio-economic structures that influence our available life choices. But Carmona makes the social determinants of health sound like personal failings that can be addressed, and overcome, on an individual level.

But not only do the social determinants of health play a key role in understanding why obesity rates rose between 1980 and 2000, they also explain why stigma and shame is a useless weapon in the War on Fat. Once again, Carmona paid lip service to this fact at a 2009 conference of the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance:

Obesity is as complex as it is dynamic. The emotional burden from stigma bears down on our neighbors, friends and children every day… stigma gets in the way of an honest dialogue about this disease and prevents investment in research and innovation.

Apparently, Carmona does not consider equating fatties with terrorists as a form of stigmatization. Nor does he seem to understand that earlier in that speech, he contradicts his own statements on both the harm of stigma and the influence of the social determinants of health. Carmona said, “Many of us super-sized, when we should have downsized our meals. We often drove cars to buy processed food when we could have been getting exercise by growing our own fresh food.”

Shorter Carmona: the social determinants of health limit our choices and stigmatizing fat people is wrong, but dammit, if those fatties would just grow their own food then they wouldn’t be dwarfing 9/11 with their weapons of ass destruction.

None of this should come as any surprise considering Carmona’s earlier statement that science matters less than spin. But the key evidence of this philosophy comes from a 2002 Federal Trade Commission report on false advertising for weight loss products. The FTC quotes Carmona as saying, “Overweight and obesity is the second leading cause of death, killing 300,000 people a year.” That mortality rate has since been thoroughly debunked.

Ironically, Carmona then goes on to claim, “There is not a miracle pill that will lead to weight loss.”

I say “ironically” because the STOP Obesity Alliance was founded by none other than Sanofi, the fourth largest pharmaceutical company in the world. Not only does Sanofi hold patents on such blockbuster drugs as Ambien, Allegra, and Codeine, but it’s also behind the anti-obesity drug Rimonabant, which is currently sold throughout Europe as Acomplia. In the United States, Rimonabant went to trial as Zumulti, but was rejected in 2007 due to psychological side effects. According to Fortune magazine:

[S]ince its discovery in the early ’90s, the drug has been plagued by claims that it causes depression. Even so, Zumulti was projected to take the U. S. health care market by storm. Wall Street analysts projected the drug’s peak annual sales of over $7 billion. The excitement came to a halt last June, when a panel of experts sighted suicidal thoughts and depression as a reason for unanimously recommending that the FDA should reject Zumulti.

And just last week, Sanofi announced it has formed an alliance with Coca-Cola to develop “health drinks.” According to Bloomberg:

Sanofi is looking to diversify to reduce its reliance on prescription drugs while Coca-Cola faces pressure to offer healthier beverages amid rising obesity rates. The first four drinks will help with hair, weight loss, sun exposure and general vitality, according to a Sanofi presentation obtained by Bloomberg.

Carmona’s right: there may not be a magic pill, but it seems the STOP Obesity Alliance is developing a magic elixir.

For me, Richard Carmona is a prime example of how the War on Fat has taken what could have been a valuable public health campaign and twisted it into a disturbing game of scapegoating and profiteering at the expense of the physical and mental well-being of fat people. And if you need further evidence of distorted messages and cognitive dissonance created by a weight-focused campaign then look no further than Carmona’s presence on the Pritikin Family Program website.

The Pritikin Diet is a strict, low-fat diet used therapeutically to combat metabolic disorders, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Of course, it has now become just another diet brand, offering a weight loss spa and resort.

And on its page devoted to childhood obesity, Pritikin cites Carmona’s “terror within” claim to promote the importance of its program. Yet, on that same page, there’s a fascinating article that is an absolute must-read called “12 years old, thin… and developing plaque.”

Sure, obesity contributes to these cardiovascular-related woes, but if we focus only on obesity, we’re missing the millions of thin children who are also at risk… Explains Dr. Robert Vogel, leading cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, “This study found correlates with obesity, but none were very strong, which is to say that a child can be perfectly thin and have awful risk factors.”

Confused yet? Yeah, you should be. The rhetorical contortions necessary to square this circle w0uld make Mitt Romney blush. And Richard Carmona is the chief architect of this intellectually bankrupt approach. Carmona launched the War on Fat by attempting to attack fat bodies without harming fat people. We now know this just isn’t possible, and it sure as hell hasn’t yielded the promised “reversal” of obesity rates.

When society makes the elimination of fat bodies it’s penultimate goal, desperate attempts are inevitable, as evidenced by organizations like Strong4Life that resort to stigma as public health policy.

And if Richard Carmona becomes the next United States Senator from Arizona, I fear he will play a pivotal role in shaping our national health priorities for years to come. As he said at the STOP Obesity Alliance:

By working together in a non-partisan fashion, we can better inform our political leaders, communities, families and ourselves on the critically important need to end the obesity epidemic and we can accomplish that goal. We must improve the health literacy of this nation. This involves every single individual, right up to the federal government, and all of us have a responsibility. [emphasis mine]

Democrats who see Carmona as a trail-blazing Surgeon General will no doubt interpret his efforts as noble and altruistic. But allow me to present one last piece of the puzzle that will flesh out the man behind the panic.

Last Tuesday, Candy Crowley moderated the shit out of the Town Hall debate, despite intense pressure from both parties going into the night after she told Time magazine she intended to ask followup questions.

I already had huge respect for Crowley as a journalist on CNN. But I also adore her because she’s a very successful, highly-visible fierce fatty.

As a Democrat, I found Crowley’s instant fact-checking to be an accurate, incisive and brutal smackdown of the semantically-challenged Romney.

Well, this past Friday, Richard Carmona debated his own opponent, Republican Congressman Jeff Flake. After a particularly heated exchange, the moderator, Brahm Resnik tried to defuse the situation by moving onto another subject, holding out his hands as Carmona and Flake bickered across his lap.

Once Resnik got both candidates to back down he joked, “Now I know how Candy Crowley felt, geez.”

Carmona’s response?

“You’re prettier than her.”

Carmona has since apologized for his comment, but I believe this unscripted moment, when he thought he was being clever and amusing, is the Richard Carmona behind our national contempt for fatties.

*In an attempt to not step on anyone’s toes this time, I have refrained from calling them Teabaggers.
**Yes, yes, I hear those of you who believe both parties are subject to corporate influence, but I fundamentally disagree with the proposition that four more years of Obama would yield a similar policy to four years of Romney. As broken as our system is, I will not stand by and allow one party to break it even further. I believe that we can impact greater reform (e.g., a constitutional amendment overturning Citizen’s United) through Democratic leadership than Republican leadership, or an attempt to support a third party. There is just too much at stake this year to throw my vote away on Gary Johnson or others. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2012 3:20 pm

    Candy Crowley kicked ass. I am watching the debate as best I can from work tonight, and wish she was moderating again.

    Maybe it makes me a bad fatty or something, but honestly, weight issues are not a factor in my vote 99.9% of the time. Frankly, I expect both sides to mock and tease fat people, and don’t figure that will change any time soon. This election is absolutely the lesser of two evils for some people, but for me it seems clear. I will spare you all the rhetoric and just say which would you rather have: a little bit of change, or a regression?

    • October 22, 2012 10:19 pm

      She did kick ass. At least as well as Martha Raddatz. Honestly, if I were in Arizona, I would probably still vote for him because I really do find the current brand of Republicanism to be toxic. You just have to look at the charts on cloture to see what colossal dicks they’ve been. Giving up a Senate seat is a huge deal, so I’m more expressing the potential for Schadenfreude on November 7th. I actually deleted how I felt equivocal about it because I’m not. I just really wish Richard Carmona weren’t about to take the reigns of power, particularly to the Senate. That man is bad news.


  2. Fab@54 permalink
    October 22, 2012 5:44 pm

    Every single g-damn presidential election since Jimmy Carter got screwed out of a 2nd term, I wanted to vote 3rd (or 4th) party…. Sometimes I actually did it. Voted Ralph Nader once or twice, and voted Libertarian a couple times as well, mostly prior to and during the Reagan and Clinton years.
    I always felt that I had “thrown my vote away” yet was compelled to vote my way no matter what. The last three elections (Bush, Bush and Obama)? Well, I didn’t throw away my votes – but it really really pissed me off to feel so ‘trapped’ and limited in choices.

    Once again I feel trapped. Obama did disappoint me, not because he’s so “horrible” or damaging to this country, but because he’s not nearly close enough to the left side of Center – for me, anyway.
    I never expected him to be a lefty radical president…. but I didn’t expect him to back down from Republican stonewalling so easily, either. He tried way too hard and waaaaaay too long to be ‘bipartisan’ before realizing he was dealing with a quickly evolving party of Teabaggin’ extremists.

    All that aside, I usually don’t treat Fat Acceptance/Size Acceptance issues as political issues, though. At least not in the classic sense. It’s a social issue; one that doesn’t SEEM to be supported or otherwise encouraged by political parties. Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity cause… well, yeah, there’s that…. but as cringe worthy as she sometimes is on that issue, I don’t think she actually ‘politicizes’ it. Do you?

    • Fab@54 permalink
      October 22, 2012 5:46 pm

      Want to make it very clear… I am NOT voting for Romney/Ryan. NEVER. I will vote Obama only because I’m getting paranoid that it might be THAT close…. and I would be devastated if Obama lost by a hair, and I didn’t vote for him. 😉

      • October 22, 2012 10:26 pm

        The closeness of the race is starting to concern me, but Nate Silver and 538 helps me sleep at night. It’s close, but strategically in Obama’s favor. It’s going to be a nail-biter for sure.


    • October 22, 2012 10:25 pm

      Here’s my history:

      First election, I voted for Bush because Gore was a bore, man.

      Second election, I voted for Ralph Nader because I did not want to vote for the lesser of two evils. I really didn’t like Kerry.

      Third election, having seen what Republicans are fully capable of, I’ve pretty much jumped from general apathy to “Shit, we’ve gotta fight back.”

      Fourth election, I’m totally committed to the Democratic Party, exactly like my Grandma Kate. It would take a pretty radical Republican to get me to ever vote for a conservative agenda ever again in my lifetime.

      As to Michelle Obama, I think she can be nudged away from childhood obesity. The Pritikin article really blew my mind. Pritikin is taken seriously by the medical community. Veronica’s grandpa went on Pritikin when he had a heart attack, and was for the rest of his life. If Pritikin gets that it can’t just be about fat kids, then Michelle Obama can get it. Information is our ally. I think good intentions can be redirected to a general campaign of positive health. That would be a worthwhile investment, if done properly.


      • Fab@54 permalink
        October 24, 2012 9:37 am

        The Pritikin article? I think I missed it… link please – or map and directions. 😉

      • Fab@54 permalink
        October 24, 2012 9:39 am

        durr… never mind Shannon…. I see it now. ::: where’s my coffee? :::

  3. vesta44 permalink
    October 22, 2012 7:57 pm

    I think for a lot of people, being fat is politicized, especially with the ACA and Romney/Ryan’s promises to repeal it if elected. The fact that pre-existing conditions won’t disqualify someone from getting health insurance is reason enough to not vote for those douchebuckets. I have Medicare, and the fact that they want to do away with that is reason enough for me to not to vote for them (along with wanting to do away with Social Security, what would I do without my SSDI?). Fro me, the personal is very much political, and Romney/Ryan don’t care about fat, old, disabled women like me at all, no matter what they say. I’ll take the little bit of progress Obama promises over the hundred years of regression that the Romney/Ryan ticket guarantees.

    • October 22, 2012 10:31 pm

      But vesta, if you’re over 55, you don’t have to worry. It’s just your grandkids who are fucked. The social safety net installed with the New Deal sparked the most prosperous growth in modern history because it protected our basic rights to healthcare, food security, and a guaranteed investment in our golden years. These are worth fighting for.


      • vesta44 permalink
        October 23, 2012 12:15 am

        It’s not just my grandkids who are fucked, it’s also my son and daughter-in-law, they’re still under 40. And if Congress keeps looting Social Security like they have been, it’s not going to matter that DH and I are over 55 and can keep getting SS/SSDI – we can’t draw what isn’t there if Congress has “borrowed” it all and left worthless IOUs in the place of the money we paid in. And I’m very afraid that’s the direction we’re headed – all I can hope for is that I die before the money runs out.

  4. lifeonfats permalink
    October 23, 2012 9:12 am

    The Republicans of yesteryear are gone, replaced by foaming-at-the-mouth Bible thumpers who scream for less government yet feel government has every right to regulate my reproductive organs in the name of religion, while pandering to the Tea Party for votes. The Tea Party did nothing after they got in office. You don’t allow people to work for government when they hate it. Where’s the logic in that? I don’t want lunatics like that representing me (and as a biracial woman I’m not that important to them anyway) so I definitely won’t be voting for Romney, Ryan or any of their ilk.

  5. Happy Spider permalink
    October 24, 2012 5:58 am

    This was really interesting. Also vile, ugh, now I feel all depressed. I’d never heard of Richard Carmona before.
    I’m not happy with the problem of whether to vote for individuals or to vote the party line.
    On the one hand, isn’t it more American to vote for the individual? We believe in freedom. The person is more important than the group. If you start thinking of people In terms of groups then you end up judging people by how well they conform to group standards instead of by their own merits. People should follow their own dreams instead of blindly adhering to their groups.
    On the other hand, it does seem to make a difference which party is in the majority in the government. Suppose the party generally supports A but your local candidate supports B. Suppose you vote for your candidate anyway and this helps the party win the majority. Then the party gets to chair important committees and to set various agendas. When your important issue comes up for vote they can strong arm or bribe your guy into going along with A. But what about the long-term effects? Now there is a successful guy in your party who believes in B. He will naturally try to persuade others to his view. So the party moves in a B-ward direction.
    I used to think that voting for the individual was the clear winner in this argument but things seem so partisan these days that I feel like candidates go along with their party regardless of their own beliefs so I might as well vote the party.
    Also, I feel guilty because I think it is all my own fault for being lazy and apathetic. If I were involved in politics at a lower level, instead of just ignoring things until the final election between two candidates, then I could have an influence over who the two candidates are instead of being forced to choose between two evils. Obviously this refers to the primaries, where several candidates are winnowed down to just one, but more significantly it seems to be that strong local political activity eventually affects who ends up in the big leagues. So, great, not only am I forced to chose between candidates I don’t like but the people in charge have convinced me that it’s my own fault and I have no right to complain. Phooey on them, I think I’ll complain anyway.

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