Should the government regulate what we eat?
by Craig L. Bosley, MD
“Government, even in its best state,
is but a necessary evil; in its worst
state, an intolerable one.”
— Thomas Paine
A 2007 medical study found that obesity is associated with 162,000 deaths each year. A Centers for Disease Control report concluded that medical costs associated with obesity exceed $147 billion a year. Pediatrician David Ludwig said that in his training he had never seen Type 2 diabetes (what used to be called “adult-onset” diabetes); but now one-fourth of his pediatric patients newly diagnosed with diabetes have Type 2.
Given this type of information, the government is starting to regulate what we eat. Setting aside whether the government has the constitutional authority to do so, do we want the government telling us what we can eat?
The fact is we are far behind other countries in governmental regulation of diet. Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland essentially banned trans fats from people’s diets, with Denmark hypothesizing the ban resulted in a 50 percent decrease in deaths from ischemic heart disease. Still, is this an acceptable justification for the government to control what we eat?
In the United States, New York City, Philadelphia and California have already banned trans fats. California officials even want to begin regulating the recipes food manufacturers use for their products. But it is school districts that are a primary target because the federal government already provides some monies to them, making it easy to attach new diet regulations to that money. Further support for government regulation of school diets comes from studies showing that children consume 30 percent to 50 percent of their calories at school and children living in states where schools don’t sell junk foods are not as overweight.
Even the United Nations recommends the government regulate our diet, saying that tobacco, alcohol and diet are the main risk factors in non-communicable disease. It asserts that governments already regulate tobacco and alcohol, so why not regulate the third component, our diet?
How can our government believe it can eliminate trans fats when it has been unable to eliminate something that is even more harmful, cigarettes? Do you think it might have something to do with the “contributions” tobacco producers and cigarette manufacturers make to members of Congress? Though Congress primarily makes decisions focused on its members’ best interests, there might actually be taxpayer benefits to regulating our diet.
Let’s start with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly called food stamps, which is provided to one in seven Americans. So far, the government has put few restrictions on what foods can be purchased with SNAP. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even denied New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg permission to test limiting SNAP purchases of sweetened drinks.
Though I usually disagree with government intrusion into our lives, Bloomberg may be on the taxpayers’ side this time. As Ludwig pointed out, the taxpayer pays twice for those receiving SNAP benefits: “We pay once when low-income families buy junk foods and sugary beverages with SNAP benefits, and we pay a second time when poor diet quality inevitably increases the costs of health care in general, and Medicaid and Medicare in particular. Both taxpayers and insurance premium payers subsidize bad health choices of others.”
Ludwig further suggested that soda and other junk foods should be ineligible for purchase through SNAP, just like alcohol and tobacco are ineligible. Actually, should we expect people receiving government assistance to neither smoke nor drink? If they have enough money to purchase cigarettes and alcohol, is it reasonable for the taxpayer to provide them money to purchase their “necessities?” Should the taxpayer subsidize others’ bad choices?
We can argue that no one has the right to regulate what someone eats, if they consume alcohol, or if they smoke cigarettes. But don’t we have to balance individual rights against taxpayer rights if the taxpayers are expected to pay the costs for people needing government assistance? Are there any good answers to these problems?
Dr. Craig Bosley practiced medicine in Pocatello for 30 years, recently moving home to Kearney, Nebraska. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns, email subscriptions and podcasts are available at www.craigbosley.com.