First, They Came for the Smokers, -- Now, the Gluttons

July 21, 1991|By ARTHUR CAPLAN

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — St. Paul, Minnesota. -- You're not gonna believe this. According to Newsweek magazine, 650 non-union employees of the Hershey Foods Corp., the Pennsylvania outfit famous for those yummy, belt-busting, silver-foiled chocolate kisses, will soon be required to report for physical examinations.

The company wants to know if they are overweight or have high cholesterol counts. If they do, Hershey intends to fine them as much as $1,404 per year to pay the increased costs of health insurance that may be associated with flabby anatomies.

That's right. A huge candy company, one that spends a bundle of money on ads to get us to eat ourselves into a sugar stupor, is going to make its fat employees pay more for their health insurance.

What's next at Hershey's -- a combination lock on the soda machine? Oral exams at the plant gate each morning to make sure everybody is brushing their teeth properly? A ban on company products in the company canteen?

If the specter of a candy company insisting on a fat-free work staff isn't enough to drive you in despair to your refrigerator, how about a beer company insisting that it will only pay the full health-insurance tab for its workers who are fit and trim?

This is the policy now followed by the beer-brewing giant, Coors. Presumably many of the beefy fellows seen extolling the virtues of the company's products on television would be viewed with a jaundiced eye were they to enter the company cafeteria at the Golden, Colo., brewery. Do Coors executives issue health-care alerts when beer is served at company picnics?

What's next? Tobacco companies penalizing employees for sneaking a smoke in the bathroom? Motorcycle makers forbidding their workers to drive one of their bikes to work? Gun manufacturers telling their employees they may not, in light of the risks associated with firearms, own any?

Hershey's and Coors, like so many other American companies, are being crushed by ever-escalating health-insurance premiums. But, is the solution to this problem allowing your employer to tell you what you can eat, how much you can weigh, what you can drink and how you should live? Do you really want the company CEO dictating your lifestyle? Can anyone take seriously the health-promotion messages of beer and candy companies?

Unless you work for Richard Simmons, it is nuts to allow your boss to serve as your personal-fitness guru. The evidence companies cite as the basis for penalizing workers is much in dispute. The role played by weight, high blood pressure, cholesterol and diet in determining health and longevity is still murky.

If, as one study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association maintains, lowering the fat in your diet will add only three months to your days on this planet, some might reasonably say to hell with it and head for the 7-11 to pick up a six-pack of brewskis and a couple of candy bars.

The answer to the high cost of health care is not allowing private companies to act as health police. To control health costs, corporate America needs to spend less time holding weighs-ins in the workplace and more time in Washington insisting that the administration and Congress do something about our fat, bloated, inefficient health-care system.

Corporate puritanism needs to be nipped in the bud before the only place you can afford to work is a granola factory.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota and a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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