Guided by a new study on causes of America's obesity crisis, your Unconventional Wiz has developed a plan that is virtually guaranteed to melt off the country's extra pounds:

* Get women out of the workplace and back into the kitchen.

* Substantially cut or eliminate taxes on cigarettes. Better yet, encourage smoking.

* Overturn state clean indoor air laws, perhaps as part of our Start Smoking -- Ask Me How! campaign.

Hey, I didn't say it was a good plan, did I? But it would work -- or at least that's the implication of research by economists Inas Rashad of Georgia State University, Michael Grossman of the City University of New York Graduate Center and Shin-Yi Chou of Lehigh University.

Of course Rashad and her colleagues are much too smart to propose that we sentence women to the kitchen, dump taxes on cigarettes or scrap indoor air laws. But their findings underscore how otherwise beneficial social trends and well-intended public policies can have unintended harmful consequences.

The current rise in obesity is a case in point. Since 1970, the percentage of obese Americans has doubled and the number of obese children has tripled. Health officials report that half the country is now overweight.

To understand the reasons for the rise, Rashad and her colleagues analyzed various national and state data, including the results of three separate health and nutrition surveys conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control between 1971 and 1994.

Their main finding? The weight gain tracks the proliferation of restaurants and fast-food places. In a 15-year period ending in 1997, the number of restaurants per capita increased by a whopping 61 percent.

But that raises another question: What's behind the restaurant explosion? One big cause, they argue, is that there are many more women in the paid labor force today than in the 1970s and thus fewer at home preparing presumably more healthful (or at least lower-calorie) meals. "There is now a time cost for preparing meals at home," Rashad said.

It is a price that working women and men seem reluctant to pay. "People would rather work more hours in order to go out to eat" instead of coming home to fix a healthy meal after a hard day at work, Rashad said. "There are tradeoffs. Obviously women entering the workforce is positive, but that does not mean there were not unintended negative consequences."

National efforts to cut smoking, as well as indoor air laws, also had the unintended consequence of putting inches on America's waistline because "smoking tends to increase metabolism and suppress appetite," Rashad wrote in a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Of course, I'm not expecting Rashad to endorse my four-point plan for a leaner, meaner America. "Many people have suggested these findings are reasons to go back on lots of things," she said. "That is simply not something we can conclude."

Needle Love

Heroin addiction is tough to overcome, and researcher Davina Moss thinks she knows one reason why: Some addicts seem to mourn their "lost" relationship and move through the classic stages of grief as they kick their habit.

"I was extremely surprised to hear the addicts describe their love for the needle," said Moss, a newly minted PhD in counselor education at the University of Buffalo who conducted in-depth interviews with a dozen addicts in a detox facility. They told her about their feeling of "oneness" with the needle, even how they would caress it.

Some junkies characterized their relationship with their syringes as a "love affair," said Moss, who has worked with heroin addicts for 13 years.

In one interview, she recounted, whenever the user "described his 'works' [drug paraphernalia], the look on his face was like he was talking about a loved one."

Her research suggests that recovering addicts don't just miss the drug -- they actually grieve the loss of the "heroin lifestyle," partly because they're hooked on the challenge and thrill of obtaining and using the drug.

Several told her "how they missed feeling the needle in their arm" -- a confession that came out when she asked them why they were always first in line to have required blood samples drawn at the detox facility.

"Heroin addicts develop a strong bond among themselves -- much like you find within a family or cult," Moss asserted. "They have their own slang, they watch out for each other and share information on where to get the drug."

Moss said that the more she talked with these dozen addicts and other users, the more she realized that the process of quitting heroin followed the classic stages of grief, including denial, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance that they're not going back to their formerly destructive ways. It's an insight, she said, that counselors can use in their work.

"Counselors should look at this person as they would someone who is grieving over a lost spouse or child," said Moss, whose work has attracted national attention. "Let them talk freely about the relationship they have had with heroin, so they can move on."

Keep It Civil

Don't you love it when politicians fight?

So do I. But we shouldn't, say political scientist Diana C. Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania and communications professor Byron Reeves of Stanford University. They found that watching impolite exchanges between opposing candidates makes people more mistrustful of the political system, politicians and political institutions.

In three experiments involving more than 200 test subjects, the researchers showed mock programs in which a moderator discussed politics with two actors posing as political candidates.

In two versions, the two candidates strongly disagreed with each other, but in a polite way. In the third, they debated those same issues but went out of their way to be insulting and uncivil to each other.

In subsequent interviews, the test subjects who saw the uncivil debate were significantly more likely to say they didn't trust politicians, Congress or our system of government, Mutz and Reeves reported earlier this year in the American Political Science Review.

God knows what they would have found if they had forced their test subjects to watch "The McLaughlin Group," "Hardball" or any of those other howl-and-screech political shows.