Obesity and unhealthy living are as much a problem in this country as government over-regulation. Lately, we’ve seen several prominent politicians weigh in (no pun intended) on this topic.
It is typical of politicians to enter into a policy with the best intentions, even if those intentions are at odds with higher ideals. In the case of political figures tackling obesity, what can start out as an effort to give consumers better information and choices turns into their making the choices for you.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been the poster child for this behavior. Bloomberg, the anti-fat crusader, was at his best in 2008, requiring restaurants to disclose the caloric value of their foods. Here the consumer could make a choice: get the grilled chicken and veggies with 400 calories or the Bloomin’ Onion with 2210 calories. That’s no typo–it’s almost a full day’s worth of calories in one appetizer. But you still had the choice to eat it, as well as the choice to get up in the morning and exercise to work it off.
“Bad” Bloomberg was in the news last week when his large sugary drink ban was struck down. Afterwards, he restated his determination to institute the drink ban and maintains that he will rewrite the law in order to deny Big Gulps to the masses. Now this is just silly. If we know a Big Gulp of Coke contains 620 calories, why should the government deny us the right to make the decision of what to put in our bodies, especially if it is not an illegal substance and does not hurt anyone else?
It’s good for public figures to encourage healthy choices; it’s good to foster a discussion about the dangers of obesity. We can’t deny that America has rapidly become less healthy with heart attacks, adult onset diabetes, etc., all on the rise and closely related to being overweight. We’ve also seen a sharp rise in deadly food allergies in children and problems related to the massive amounts of preservatives and filler in modern foods. However, when you cross the line into regulating what a person can and cannot eat, you are essentially denying individual liberty.
On the flip side, I’ve heard from plenty of my conservative and libertarian friends that restaurants are under no obligation to tell you how many calories are in their food, just as they need not serve anything deemed healthy. They insist that the free market will determine if the food is of value. However, the free market can only operate properly when the consumer is educated. I agree that Ben & Jerry’s is not required to offer healthy alternatives if that’s their prerogative, but they should let the consumer easily know how healthy (or unhealthy) a serving of Chunky Monkey is.
Despite the protestations of the right, the government absolutely has an interest in making sure its citizens are fit. A healthy American has a lower chance of major illness and disease, thereby being more productive, producing more tax revenue, being better able to fight in a war if need be, being more likely to nurture healthy children and requiring less medical care, especially important with the Affordable Care Act.
So it is in the government’s and its citizens’ best interest for food producers to provide healthier alternatives and consumers to buy them. The largest impediment is the current high cost of organic food and healthier options. A family living on minimum wage isn’t going to go to Whole Foods and buy organic when it costs four times less at the local Safeway.
Here is where the true battle between progressives and conservatives in this arena should be fought: the government’s ability to allow equal access to markets. I do not believe the government should enact subsidies or price supports to make fresh, healthy ingredients more readily available. Rather, we need to look at ways to make it a positive incentive, say, through tax deductions and incentives.
There is also a less controversial way for the government to be involved, and that is by addressing deficiencies in our children’s education. We need to bring back health courses in elementary and high school; these courses have been cut over the past 20 years. Reintroducing these classes can help kids learn to make better diet and lifestyle choices. Also, gym class and recesses have been all but eliminated. Physical stimulation in growing children is just as important as mental nourishment; it has not only been shown to help socialization, but also to actually help children in their studies.
In the end, it comes down to letting people decide how best to live their lives. Banning Big Gulps isn’t the answer; empowerment is. Arming the people with the best information and access has always been the foundation of a fit and strong America.