Was Scott Griggs Right to Bring Up Obesity Talking About City Employees?

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When is being fat a legitimate political issue? Ever? Even theoretically? Is it ever right for a skinny person to get mouthy about other people being fat?

I winced, I admit, when I read that Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs was talking about people at City Hall being too tubby. In Stephen Young’s piece here the other day, Griggs was quoted saying, “We've heard the reports, we're the most obese city staff in the United States.”

Griggs is slender. Is there a single day in the week when it’s OK for a slender person to make invidious remarks about people who have weight issues?

For one thing, in spite of all this new religion of Fitianity that we get hammered with all day long now, I have always assumed the lion’s share of the slenderness in this world was utterly undeserved, blind luck based on the Russian roulette of genetics.

My scientific evidence is my own very long career, apparently now at an end, of staying skinny while having the world’s worst eating habits. If someone else had a metabolism tilted one degree more toward fat than my own used to be and had eaten the way I did all those years, he would have looked like … well … sort of the way I guess I’m going to look soon if I don’t find the right 12-step program.

My point is that I was skinny without remotely deserving to be. I never considered skinniness to be associated in any way with virtue. By the way, neither did Charles Atlas, but that’s a story from another era.

Griggs did not bring up the topic of tubbiness out of the blue. The council’s 15 members were debating one of those very few questions that can inspire intense interest in them — the awarding of an exclusive contract to sell either Coca Cola or Dr Pepper soft drinks in city-owned venues. Talking about things they themselves can ingest seems to focus their minds.

Griggs uncovered the fact that both Coca Cola and Dr Pepper were being awarded extra points in the bidding process because they were agreeing to give cases of free soda to each council member. The number they were offering averaged out to about 100 cases. He pointed out that was about $6,000 worth of soft drinks per council member.

I was more concerned with how much sugar per council member that would work out to be. Some quick, very inexpert web-surfing led me to the Coca Cola and Dr Pepper nutrition labels which showed 39 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce Coke and 40 grams in a Dr Pepper. A chocolate Mars Bar, for comparison, is supposed to contain only 20.8 grams of sugar. So let's say we average the amount of sugar per can to 39.5 grams.

The World Health Organization recommends that the average adult consume only 25 grams of sugar per day. That means the little gifties the soda companies were offering our council members would have given them all the sugar they needed for the next 3,792 days or roughly 11 years. And I think it was a repeating yearly gift, like Sugaristmas or something.

Now, I did try to figure out if they could walk all of that off, but it seems not to be possible without reincarnation. So that made me wonder if maybe Griggs had a point.

I looked up what he was talking about vis a vis all of the Dallas City Hall employees, and here I really just double-cringed. The whole topic seems terribly awkward, but … wow. Maybe we do need to talk about this.

Below I have provided you with one slide from a PowerPoint presentation given to the council a year and a half ago based on a study of city employees by United Healthcare. UHC found that 81 percent of the employees covered by the city’s plan were overweight or obese.

UHC didn’t say that this was the highest rate of obesity for city employees in the country. It said, “This is the highest incidence of overweight/obese members in UHC’s entire book of business.”

That’s … uh … different. That’s saying that, as far as UHC knows, Dallas City Hall is the fattest place in the country.

Now, you might think that the United States is the fattest country in the world, but that is not true. The World Health Organization says that we are only the 27th fattest, with slews of quite tubby Pacific Island and Middle Eastern nations ahead of us. And just to put things in perspective, if you really want to get skinny you should go live in North Korea until you die, which won’t be long.

So let’s be fair. There are worse things than being fat, like starving to death. And Dallas city employees are not the fattest people in the world, just maybe in this country. UHC also found fairly astronomical rates of diabetes and hypertension at Dallas City Hall, which should not surprise us.

The city has a very fancy wellness program headed up by a former assistant city manager, Forest Turner, whom I was not able to raise with my requests for an interview in the last two days. The council this year, on learning that Mr. Turner’s program was yielding poor results and duplicated other services available from a healthcare provider, cut the budget from over a million dollars a year to roughly half that amount. I am told, however, that Mr. Turner himself is seen often around City Hall in his workout togs and seems to be in splendid shape.

If we want to look at City Hall selfishly as taxpayers, we might guess — correctly, according to that UHC briefing — that the amount of diabetes and hypertension costs us dearly in medical care and compensated leave time. If we were to look at it compassionately, we might observe that the people who serve us at City Hall are enduring a lot of physical suffering due to obesity.

In any event, I have stopped cringing. It seems pretty clear that Griggs is raising a legitimate and important issue. He’s right. If nothing else, asking for a 11-year personal supply of sugar for each council member from a bidder on a city contract is hardly the right leadership posture.

P.S. What do you suppose they get in terms of Mars Bars? They’d have to deliver those to them in an 18-wheeler.

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