Essay: Unhealthy Food

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[. . .] A ban such as Bloomberg's on sugary drinks is a drop in the bucket compared with the overall issues afflicting the health of Americans. It is an effective way of helping people with their health, but is a tool that is only effective in conjunction with other tools, and carries with it fairly significant consequences for the balance in American society between individual freedoms and government intervention. Changing behavior is slow, and it may be difficult for such a ban to change the overall behavior patterns (overconsumption, inattentive eating, lack of exercise, etc.) that lead to the public health problems Bloomberg wants to address. Melnick (2010) notes that many factors contribute to this issue, and the availability of specific serving sizes of specific products is not going to solve too many of these issues.

That said, the question of "should what we consume be under government supervision" is an intellectually dishonest question. At no point does anything that is being proposed constitute government supervision. Nobody in government will ever have any way of knowing what you bought or consumed, ever. It is this type of dishonest framing that makes it impossible to have intelligent debate in this country about these types of issues.

At the end of the day, greater levels of education are more important than greater levels of government intervention. Most people never take a marketing course, or an economics course, or a course on personal health and nutrition. If people are making poor decisions, it is because they do not have the tools with which to make better decisions. If government wants to improve education and start teaching things that are useful in life, that would be better than infringing upon the individual decision-making ability of grown adults. Children might be another matter, but even with children it is adults who make the final purchase decision and provide the money to do so.

If governments are concerned with lowering health care costs, government could also examine the manner in another way. Smokers are routinely discriminated against by just about every health insurance plan, and surely the bright actuarial minds can find a way to discriminate against those whose obesity-based ailments are self-inflicted. If people are truly going to make smarter choices, it will not come because government told them to, but because they have better knowledge on which to base their decisions and because they have a strong motivation to make different choices. Further, such an approach would retain the strong tradition of individual decision-making that we have in the United States.

That said, government has a long history of becoming involved for people's safety. It is disingenuous to argue against bans on Big Gulps while accepting bans on public smoking, speed limits, mandatory seatbelt laws, minimum structural integrity standards for buildings and other such government protections. We as a society do accept that government has a role in protecting us; it is just that we are not accustomed to government exercising this role at the point of purchase. That might be a line we do not wish to cross as a society, and since we can use other means to change behavior, perhaps those other means are what Bloomberg and others should have explored first instead of going after the cheap and easy targets.

References:

Bernhardt, A., Wilking, C., Adachi-Mejia, A., Bergamimi, E., Marijnissen, J. & Sargent, J. (2013). How television fast food marketing aimed at children compares with adult advertisements. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Retrieved September 30, 2013 from http://www.rwjf.org/en/research-publications/find-rwjf-research/2013/08/how-television-fast-food-marketing-aimed-at-children-compares-wi.html

Bittman, M. (2012). Limit soda for kids' sake. New York Times. Retrieved September 30, 2013 from http://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/limit-soda-for-kids-sake/

Mehta, K. (2007). Questioning the ethics of junk food ads. Living Ethics. Retrieved September 30, 2013 from http://svc203.wic019v.server-web.com/about-ethics/ethics-centre-articles/living-ethics-newsletter/pdfs/issue-69-article-1.pdf

Melnick, M. (2010). Study: Fast food ads target kids with unhealthy food, and it works. Time Magazine. Retrieved September 30, 2013 from http://healthland.time.com/2010/11/08/study-fast-food-ads-target-kids-with-unhealthy-food-and-it-works/

Surowiecki, J. (2012). Downsizing supersize. The New Yorker. Retrieved September 30, 2013 from http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2012/08/13/120813ta_talk_surowiecki [END OF PREVIEW]

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