Throughout history, there have been many efforts to help foster a healthier society. " Federal regulation of the industry began on a large scale in the early twentieth century when Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906"(4). Most food regulation is for good reasons such as avoiding the adulteration of food and drug products that could pose health risks for consumers. In 2008, New York became the first American city to require that restaurants publish the calorie content of their items on menus (5), and despite protestation from critics, it has become somewhat of a standard throughout America today. Even the current trend towards public smoking bans seems reasonable. In all of these instances, the regulations and laws work to inform consumers so that they may make educated choices in regards to their own health and to protect non-smoking individuals from exposure to possibly toxic factors such as second-hand smoke. However, I believe that there is a difference between these types of regulations and the more recent attempts to control what Americans eat and drink, all under the guise of public health.
Some of the more recent items banned in some cities and states (California and New York leading the way) have been trans fats, table salt, and food trucks. Even froi gras is now on the chopping block in California (8). Other efforts are not direct bans or regulations of food, but have a similar approach such as a ban on toys in kid's meals in California (9). Supporters and politicians claim that all of these things are in the public's best interest. "Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes" (10) . Too much sodium can lead to problems with high blood pressure and heart disease. Too much sugar can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. In regards to large sodas, Walter Millet states that "High intake of these beverages (the standard 20-ounce soda contains 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar) increases the risks of obesity and diabetes and is clearly unsafe for anyone" (1) .
According to an online debate, 65% of respondents argue that the government should NOT regulate fast food (12). Although this is an informal site and bears no significant recording of public opinion, it is an insight into how people feel about the issue. There are arguments for and against, and it is always productive to see both sides of an issue. One of the the things that bothers me about some of the responses is what I believe is indicative in much of our current society. Individuals do not attempt to do the research on their own in order to form educated and informed opinions. I mean, why bother to read the research and learn about the science behind the issues? It is time consuming (as I can verify through the amount of time it has taken me to complete this post). Much of the information is contradictory and confusing, especially when it comes down to interpreting statistical data. And honestly, it is just that much easier to listen to what we want to hear in order to support our own opinions. So maybe the government is right and we are just too stupid- or at least too lazy- to make our own choices. At the very least this is what these public officials are counting on.
There are several things that I have come across in my "research" that demonstrate to me how much rhetoric plays a factor over actual evidence.
Going back to the ban on soda, where the argument is that it will help curb obesity, one should also consider exactly what obesity is and what causes it. According to to WebMD, " Obesity is an excess proportion of total body fat. A person is considered obese when his or her weight is 20% or more above normal weight" (14). Obesity is usually calculated using BMI, and an individual with a BMI over 25 is considered overweight while a person with a BMI over 30 is considered obese. For example, I am approximately 5'9" and I weigh around 130 lbs. If I were to calculate my BMI, I would discover that it ranges around 19. I would need to gain another 70 lbs in order to become obese, which would require an immense increase in my daily caloric intake. Perhaps if I drank eight to ten 32 oz sodas a day, I could accomplish this. All sarcasm aside, I do not want to imply that I am healthy by any means. I do not exercise or watch my diet. If "Obesity occurs when a person consumes more calories than he or she burns. For many people this boils down to eating too much and exercising too little" (14), then why am I not obese as well? There are numerous other influences on weight other than lifestyle such as age, gender, genetics, environment, psychological factors and eating habits, as well as illness and medications (I gained nearly 50 lbs when I became hypothyroid after the birth of my daughter, but later lost it as my thyroid regulated). SO another question to consider is why obesity has been on the increase in much of society. There are many reasons such as the changes in food production and eating habits as well as the decrease in physical activity. " There has been a global shift in diet towards increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients and this along with a trend towards decreased physical activity has had a large impact on worldwide increase in obesity rates. The increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanization have added to the problem" (15). Most disturbing is the increase in obesity in children, which I think most people would agree also relates to not only poor eating habits, but also the immense decrease in physical activity evidenced by the cuts in physical education and other school-based activities, increased use of computers and video games, and other sedentary ways of life. So my question is, how will a ban on 32 oz sodas actually help in an appreciable way where the ends justifies the means. Or is this just one in many steps the mayor is taking in his progressive agenda for control over public consumption?
Whatever justification political officials use, I still see these bans and regulations as an attempt to dictate choice in American society. There are several comments I have read that clearly illustrate this attitude, two of which stand out the most:
"County supervisor Ken Yeager said Tuesday that the ordinance (banning toys) 'prevents restaurants from preying on children's love of toys to peddle high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium kids' meals,' and would help fight childhood obesity" (10).
"Cheryl Anderson, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said 'We can't just rely on the individual to do something' " (6).
Rather than discussing personal choice and responsibility, it is easier for these officials to legislate morality and public good. As one points out, society cannot rely on parents to make appropriate choices for their children because the children are being brainwashed by restaurants, and the parents have no control over their children. The other says it just like it is- the individual does not count. It could make many people very angry if someone actually stood up and said that individuals are responsible for their actions and lifestyle choices; that the majority of issues in their lives are within individual control; and the results (good or bad) are rooted in personal behavior. God forbid that we should actually say that perhaps part of the problem with obesity is the individual making poor choices in life. Let's just take that out of the equation and do it for them instead (note sarcastic tone here).
My thoughts on this issue are pretty simple. Mayor Bloomberg, I do not appreciate you or other officials dictating what I can and cannot have. SHAME ON YOU FOR ATTEMPTING TO REGULATE AMERICAN CITIZENS BY LIMITING THEIR CHOICES. You may not be directly telling me that I cannot purchase a large soda, which would be unconstitutional, but you are doing so by attempting to limit my choices. If I want to purchase a 32 oz soda, I should be able to do so. I may drink it myself, share it with my husband, or throw half of it away. I am fully aware of the possible long-term consequences for my choice, and it is my prerogative. In the same vein, I would like to argue that while I have the right to choose, I also believe that businesses should have the right to offer me that choice. The relationship is entirely between me (the consumer) and the business (free market). Period. And I want you to stay out of it, even if you might think the relationship is a dysfunctional one.
I am sorry that a portion of American society is struggling with obesity. However, this type of regulation will not address the real issues or causes behind it. Proponents may use whatever rhetoric they choose and manipulate statistics to benefit their arguments, but I am not stupid enough to fall for them. Sadly enough, I also believe that until more Americans are ready to stand up and take responsibility for their lives and actions as well as educate themselves about the truth behind many of these policies, there will continue to be more of this "Nanny-state" as so many label it.
- Just for fun, I wanted to include McDonald's response on Twitter: " .@MikeBloomberg We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them." (3) THANK YOU MCDONALDS FOR STANDING UP!!!!
- For an interesting look at the legal authority of a local government's ability to enact policies designed to curb obesity, read "Regulating Food Retail for Obesity Prevention: How Far Can Cities Go?" by Paul A. Diller and Samantha Graf. I like this article because it includes a couple of tables that outline the general ideas behind some regulations and provides examples from areas throughout the country. It amazes me how ignorant I was about how rampant this overreach of government really is.
(9) http://articles.cnn.com/2010-04-28/living/fast.food.toys.california_1_kids-meals-toys-ordinance?_s=PM:LIVING http://reason.com/blog/2010/03/11/more-on-the-ny-salt-ban-bill