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Truth in Advertising

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By social media standards, this story is already yesterday’s news, but given my writing on obesity, and how I vilified the heart Attack Grill in the past, I would be remiss if I did not point out a news item that comes straight from the “It Was Bound to Happen Eventually” file. On Saturday, Feb. 11, a patron of the infamous Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas suffered a heart attack himself while having a meal. He was rushed to a local hospital, where he is reported to have survived, but his name has not yet been released to the public.

The Heart Attack Grill is a theme restaurant runing with the tagline “Taste…Worth Dying For!” It deliberately courts controversy as a marketing gimmick, and it serves up food so bad for you as to fall into the range of extreme eating. Their signature dish is the Quadruple Bypass burger, a monstrosity that weighs in around 8,000 calories, and was noted in my feature on obesity, “Fat of the Land.”

Obesity is no joke. Obesity-related healthcare costs in this country cost tens of billions of dollars every year, and the various knuckleheads who actually eat a place like the Heart Attack Grill should have such lunacy excluded from their policies. It’s like writing life insurance for skydivers; the claims history on that is going to be 100%, eventually…just one a shorter time frame than you’d like to admit.

There are calls for the Heart Attack Grill to shut down, noting that its whole theme is really nothing more than celebrating the various ways in which our unhealthy eating habits are causing us grievous harm. And while I find this restaurant, and its founder, John Basso, to be repugnant, shutting the business down isn’t the answer. You drop the hammer on a place like this, and it doesn’t do anything to address the fact that people willingly go there and pay to eat food they *know* is bad for them. The fact that the Heart Attack Grill lets patrons over 350 lbs. eat for free is a slightly different issue.

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There is already so much news about this; it’s the kind of viral health story that begs to be shared and repeated and reposted and editorialized. And part of me worries that this might all be a put-on. After all, patrons thought the same when they filmed the patron being wheeled out by EMTs. And why not? Getting wheeled out on a gurney is actually a gimmick the restaurant utlizes to draw attention to itself. And when you hear Basso himself talk about it, he is the very picture of smarmy concern. he purports to feel terrible for the patient, but he doesn’t care. He just got a million more people looking at his atrocity of a restaurant. And he doesn’t care about the 100 million people who think he and his business are disgusting; these folks would never have given him business anyway. But there are those thrillseekers who will stop in to the Grill on their next jaunt to Vegas just to say they’ve been there. And that is disappointing to realize.

The Heart Attack Grill is a symptom of a much larger problem that is how our society treats food and wellness. For as much as the health insurance industry and its agents complain about how badly PPACA has maimed their business, and in particular – how PPACA failed to address the cost of health insurance itself – I have yet to see the health insurance world take aggressive action to addressing the cost of obesity. There are some wellness incentive plans out there by great companies, and there is underwriting to factor in policyholders with excessive body weight. Personally, I’d stand behind a premium surcharge – and a painful one, at that – for policyholders who are obese. This is harsh, but what else are we going to do? People in this country didn’t stop smoking – even though they knew it was killing them – until states started outlawing the practice in public places and imposing a ridiculous tax on each pack. But it worked. 

We are at a similar situation with food and our collective weight problem. Why is the health insurance industry – which is perhaps better placed to actually do something about this than anybody else – not taking action? Why, by standing aside, is it virtually inviting more government intervention? So far, I have not yet been given a satisfactory answer. Maybe somebody in the audience can serve one up. And if for some reason that comes with a side of humble pie for yours truly, I’ll take it.