Smoking and Soda Bans – Do We Need a Nanny State?

Healthcare, Marijuana, Politics, Rights

nanny state - squareYou can still buy a 32-ounce Coke in New York City – for now. Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban, which would limit the sale of certain sugary drinks over 16 oz., was impeded by State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling on Monday. Bloomberg’s administration will appeal. Bloomberg’s intention with the proposed ban was to address the growing obesity epidemic, which he believes is an issue of national public health. To New Yorkers, it’s also an issue of freedom.

Rise of the “Nanny State” Coast to Coast  

While we’re seeing some things that were once illegal slowly become legal – namely state (though not federal) legalization of marijuana, and legalization of gay marriage – we’re also facing many new restrictions. More and more people are concerned over the rise of this “nanny state,” which is responsible for things like banning the feeding of homeless people in certain areas.

The “soda ban” is not the first time Bloomberg has enacted something like this. New York saw indoor smoking banned in 2003, and in 2006, trans fats were outlawed in restaurants after a call for voluntarily reduction of trans fats failed. Bloomberg also mandated that chain restaurants post their nutrition information, also in an effort to curb obesity. Similar restrictions have been enacted on the West Coast. California was first to ban indoor smoking on a state level. A partial ban on trans fats at the state level was passed in 2008. San Francisco took it a step further in 2010 when it banned toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

In each case, legislators’ intentions are to stop us from doing harm to ourselves. Some argue that issues like obesity are legitimate public health concerns, and as such the government is right to do what it can to stop obesity from becoming worse. Others argue that this is not the government’s job, and it is overstepping the bounds when it tells us what we can and can’t eat.

Do These Restrictions Work?

If the intention of such legislation is to protect us from ourselves, and to reduce unwanted behaviors and consequences, then it’s fair to ask if these measures actually work. The results, so far, are mixed.

Evidence shows that smoking laws, which vary from community to community and state to state, do affect the smoking rate, and that bans on indoor smoking have been successful in reducing number of smokers and reducing smoking-related health problems. The ban on trans fats in New York has been successful in that trans fats consumption is down, but its affect on overall obesity rates is impossible to calculate. Increased access to nutritional information – whether on labels on packaged foods, or on menus in chain restaurants – hasn’t had any measurable positive effects on obesity. Nutritional information on packaged foods, which has been a requirement for two decades, hasn’t stopped the rise of obesity, but the FDA thinks that new labeling practices might be the key.

But trying to determine whether or not something helped is tricky. For issues of public health and human behavior, the causes are so complex and difficult to track that you can never point to something and say a definitive “this worked.” Equally, if something doesn’t lead to what you expected – say, obesity doesn’t go down after doing measure X – you can simply say that perhaps obesity didn’t go up as far as it might have, had that measure not been in place.

What About Freedom?

Whether the bans work as intended, legislation aimed at curing public health woes must be weighed against individual freedom. Once enacted, bans become the new norm and we get used to them pretty quickly. Smokers no longer allowed to smoke inside move outside. Restaurants no longer allowed to cook with trans fats use something else. If Bloomberg’s soda ban eventually goes through, consumers will quickly get used to buying multiple sodas to get their fix, or else make do with smaller amounts. The question is whether the “slippery slope” argument is valid. Should we stand up for every one of our rights, no matter how small they seem, or give up some of our liberties for the sake of the collective good? What do you think?