Flip through any newspaper or magazine, or listen to a news broadcast, and you'll likely encounter some desperate headline about America's obesity “epidemic.” America, it seems, has become a land of sloshing, lumbering hulks lacking both the willpower for sensible life decisions and the ability to reject the wiley come-ons of greedy, fast-food firms.

In fact, a government report last month claimed obesity was approaching the annual death toll of cigarette smoking. See “Obesity Obsession,” page 54.

To protect us, there's today a crusading professor of public interest law fresh off the tobacco warfront, who's mobilizing against fast-food. John Banzhaf is probably best known among the masses as the counsel behind a handful of corpulent folks who have sued McDonald's — thus far with no success.

Meanwhile, countering on the side of reason — for a change — is Congress, which in March passed a so-called “Cheeseburger Bill.” While it would be more accurate to call it the “Personal Responsibility Bill,” the legislation would shield the food industry from obesity-related suits. The industry, however, would still be liable for cases arising from tainted food and misleading product information. A similar bill is in process in the U.S. Senate.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to The Netherlands. While in Amsterdam, I was struck by how reasonable the portion sizes were served up in its ubiquitous sidewalk cafes. The portions left one comfortable, not bloated.

What's more, an obese person seemed rare. The svelte Dutch figure, I assumed, was due to responsible eating and the fact that exercise, particularly walking and biking, appear to be such a big part of Dutch culture and transportation.

Hmm, less food intake and more exercise. Wonder if that would work here?

That same summer, I printed off an article from MSNBC.com on U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). Nadler was about to undergo a second surgical procedure to lose weight. Nadler, who is 5-ft., 4-in., had weighed 338 lbs., but lost 75 lbs. by having a portion of his stomach removed the year before.

In order to speed up the process of attaining his 160-lb. weight goal, Nadler was about to undergo a second surgery that would bypass a section of his small intestine. This would make it harder for his body to absorb nutrients and calories, he reported.

Nadler was quoted in that report as saying, “Obesity is a great public health menace in our country … and people ought to think more about doing this kind of thing.”

With an example like this, is there any wonder personal accountability is out the window in this country? Is there any wonder why medical insurance is skyrocketing?

Nadler said he hoped, after losing the weight, to once again play softball. As a New York State Assemblyman some years before, he had played second base.

Apparently then, Nadler's obesity had been one of creep, a condition that thus likely was within his power to manage. In fact, in the same article, he said he had stopped using the steps to exit the D.C. subway because it was too much work.

Last summer, Daniel Altman, a New York Times columnist, presented an intriguing idea for dealing with America's growing waistline. His idea was to tax people for being overweight.

While he admitted that obesity can result from disease or an inherited condition, it's often the result of individual choice. Most individuals, can influence their weight by diet, exercise, etc.

While some folks have proposed taxing fatty foods as a way to fight obesity, Altman pointed out that the problem isn't fatty food. It's fat people.

Altman's suggestion was to collect a lump sum from every American that would go into a “reward pool.” Each year, those interested could be officially measured. Those with a normal weight would qualify for a cash reward from the pool, just like a tax refund.

Money remaining in the pool after the payouts would defray the toll of obesity on programs like Medicare and Medicaid. A study published in May 2003 put that cost at $40 billion to $50 billion/year.

Altman just may have something there.