Making us be healthy

New York City’s mayor has proposed a drastic public health measure: banning sales of sugary drinks that are greater than 16 ounces in size, in an attempt to curb obesity.

Two questions: First, will banning a certain size of soft drink really make a difference in obesity? I guess we don’t know until someone tries it and measures the effects, but I’m a little skeptical that addressing a single caloric source in such a limited way will make a significant difference. (And what’s to stop someone from buying multiple smaller-sized drinks in order to achieve the same effect as a super-size sugary drink?)

Second, and more important, even if for the sake of argument we grant that the answer to the first question is yes, how far should the law go to try to coerce people to make healthier choices? If we accept the apparent logic behind this proposed law, then it seems we must accept that government should limit how many pieces of pizza one can buy, how many greasy-double-cheezies one can order at the burger palace, how many packs of cigarettes one can purchase, how many bags of candy one can acquire, and how many bottles of beer one can obtain. And as long as we’re talking about unhealthy behaviors, should the law proscribe the number of sexual partners one has, limit the number of hours of television broadcast each day, and regulate the number of hours we spend in direct sunlight without sunscreen? Most of us would agree that such measures would be onerous and intrusive, although they arguably might marginally increase the health of a population. But is that benefit enough to justify criminalizing certain actions? Should it be an illegal act to do things that might be bad for your health?

Government is good for a lot of things: keeping order, administering justice, defense, overseeing big public-good projects like roads and clean water, and, well governing. I think it’s OK for government to protect our health by doing things like making sure the eggs I’m sold aren’t loaded with salmonella or other toxic substances: there is a direct, preventable, cause-and-effect relationship between my eating infected eggs and developing salmonellosis. But protecting my health from someone else’s actions in this way is quite different from trying to enforce my health by micromanaging my dietary actions. Government is good for a lot of things; but it is not within government’s purview to make me be healthy.


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