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How I learned to love the nanny state

March 11, 2013, at 4:12 PM
 

A federal judge has blocked the implementation of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on big-sized sugar drinks, limiting, for the moment, the reach of Mr. Bloomberg's concern for our intimate drinking habits. As a rule, I'm skeptical of interventions like these for two reasons. One: There is little evidence that they work, especially when they are touted as remedies for a complex multicausal problem like obesity. Generally, restricting access to sugary drinks in one place will simply move the offending behavior out of that place, and since sugar is rather addictive, kids will find somewhere else to make up for their deprivation. The second reason is that I don't feel comfortable being judged by the government for my food choices. Implicit in that feeling is a worry that poorer people would be disproportionately burdened by the new rules.

So my initial reaction to Bloomberg's desire to prevent people from purchasing more than 16 ounces of certain drinks at one time was not favorable. Bloomberg's reputation as a mayor who takes the social welfare of his citizens seriously is very important and ought to be a model. If, in his desire to reduce obesity, he goes over the line, he'll lose luster. And I thought that this imposition crossed the line. 

After thinking it over, though, I became less and less uncomfortable with the idea. For one thing, social experimentation on this level, on this scale, has not been tried in the United States. It's not a off-one stab into the heart of the problem; it embeds into a framework of other interventions that Bloomberg has pursued. It is transparent: It seeks to change behavior and draw attention to a source of empty calories. It does not, at least to me, unreasonably restrict the purchase of soda itself. And obesity is not an individual problem that calls for individualized solutions. To reduce obesity in New York City, large-scale interventions now may pay off in decades, when habits are changed. Bloomberg is absolutely making a moral judgment about the consumption of certain drinks, and people might be hurt by the government's sudden disapproval of their choices. They won't be harmed by it, though, and if over-consumption of sugary drinks is indeed a major contributor to a problem that has widespread, distributed social effects, even the "hurt" might be mitigated by the benefit.

The judge who blocked the law today called it "capricious" and arbitrary. This is true: The ban omits certain categories of drinks with higher sugar content and won't be enforced in the 7-Eleven next to the movie theater that can't sell non-diet sodas above 16 ounces anymore. A "legal Leviathan" ought not be created to enforce health laws in New York City, the judge says. There is something to that. Just because the government CAN do something positive to help improve the health of citizens does not mean that it ought to. Bloomberg's ban was carefully crafted precisely because there are different laws servicing different establishments, and certain businesses would be disproportionately effected by certain provisions of the law.

The beverage industry does not want to go down the road of choice restrictions, and they're prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars to prevent what would be the largest field trial of an anti-obesity intervention in history. Maybe that money ought to be saved as a contingency fund to help small business owners who might see some declines in their revenue. 

 

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