Protecting us from ourselves

At a time when prizes appear to multiply by the hour, the offbeat "Nanny Awards" given last week by a restaurant coalition could easily disappear without a trace. But the group's dubious "honors" to various food and beverage opponents offer, if you will pardon the pun, food for thought.

As the 30,000-member Guest Choice Network explains, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that the winners "have shown outstanding initiative, creativity, and determination in their efforts to protect us from ourselves."

The top Nanny of the Year prize goes to Neal Barnard, head of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, for demanding a federal lawsuit against the meat industry and fast-food restaurants. According to John Doyle, a spokesman for the Guest Choice Network, Mr. Barnard wants meat and dairy products eliminated from the food pyramid on grounds that they cause as many deaths as tobacco.

Another Nanny award goes to the Center for Science in the Public Interest for "attempting to make the case that the soft-drink beverage industry is to blame for obesity, heart disease, and caffeine addiction." The group also awarded the US Department of Agriculture a Nanny for an "anti-fat" campaign it will launch in May.

Obviously the restaurant owners are guarding their own interests. The coalition's funding comes from food and beverage suppliers. But their mocking awards point up a problem that extends far beyond the food industry - the pervasive influence of a "nanny culture."

"We live in a time when people seem to be looking for someone to tell them how to behave and for someone to blame for their actions," Mr. Doyle says.

He tells of a man who sued McDonald's after his car was hit by a driver who was eating a McDonald's hamburger. The fast-food chain, he argued, should have included a warning label reading, "Do not eat and drive."

Food is hardly the only category where nannies proliferate. Perhaps there could be a nanny award for all the television and radio announcers who play mom - or nanny - every time the weather turns cold or wet. "Be sure to bundle up today, folks," they warn endlessly, treating listeners like children.

Another nanny award could go to traffic announcers in New England. At the first sight of a few flakes of snow in the 6 a.m. air, they turn authoritarian: "Allow plenty of extra time to get to work today." The result, says one commuter, is that everyone leaves home early, making traffic jams even worse.

The nanny prize list could also include two Chicago lawyers who sued major toothbrush manufacturers last year. They argue that toothbrushes should carry warning labels stating that overbrushing can damage teeth and gums. The suit is still pending.

What a dangerous place the world has become in the eyes of these self-appointed protectors of the public good!

No one can argue against the importance of warning labels on cigarettes or signs in bars cautioning pregnant women about the harmful effects of alcohol. But where does necessary public education end and needless public intrusion begin? Ultimately, people must bear responsibility for their own decisions.

"Protecting us from ourselves," as the coalition puts it, has its limits. As their awards show, nanny, like father, does not necessarily always know best.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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