What is the government's role in people's health?

What is the government's role in people's health?

Tough question. It instantly gels into a partisan shouting point—nanny state is bad, nanny state is necessary. And in light of recent news events, and especially during an election year, we’re probably going to keep hearing this question. Is the Bloomberg soda ban arrogant or effective? Is Let’s Move! an inspiring call to action or a overbearing, elitist manifesto?

For another example, today, in Australia, the High Court upheld a law that prohibits tobacco companies from displaying their logos on cigarette packs. Instead, the packs feature health disclaimers and frightening images of mouth cancer and other ill health effects caused by smoking. A massive infringement on intellectual property, no? And it’ll probably make people smoke less too. It’s bad news for British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International. But is it a good thing?

A new study in the journal Pediatrics showed that states that enforce strict school nutrition rules have lower obesity rates. Is that a good thing?

My favorite part of the debate thus far was Seth Goldman’s July 22 editorial in the Wall Street Journal criticizing Mayor Bloomberg for his large soda ban. Goldman, TeaEO of Honest Tea, a bottler of organic ready-to-drink teas, is ostensibly part of the solution. He brings delicious, low-calorie, organic tea to the masses, offering a healthier alternative to syrup-laden Lipton products. But Goldman’s best-selling product, Honey Green Tea, is too big (16.9 ounces) and has too many calories (70) to be sold in New York City restaurants.

“As a beverage marketer, we willingly submit to the unforgiving judgment of the market,” he writes. “What we did not anticipate was an arbitrary decision to constrain consumer choice.” When the government tries to do right by consumers, does it hinder industry from doing right by consumers?

Not to say that industry hasn’t had its fair share of recent victories. Pizza’s a vegetable, right?

Industry's double-edged sword

Industry’s not always trying to do right by consumers. It gives people what they want, not what they need.

The reality is that 350 million people are integral parts of a sophisticated though creaky system called the U.S.A. and they need to figure out some way to co-exist and make the system last. When a large sector of the system is sick and distended, someone has to fix it. We are in an obesity crisis and we need to get out.

The fix is pretty simple, right? We should probably all eat better and exercise more. An individual has the power to make that choice. And, as the argument goes, that power should belong solely to the individual. But there are 350 million individuals struggling to make the system work for them.

I always think about James Madison’s sly maxim: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” If I could get my 2,000 calories from manna and fly it all off each day, I’d sign up. But I like breakfast burritos. And hamburgers. It’s pretty dang hard to constantly subscribe to the “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” credo. I could probably use some help.

I’m not a scientist—I think I’ve said this before. But eating too many calories makes you fat. I’m pretty sure about that. I’m pretty sure that soda is bad for you. Coca-Cola is not making people healthier by selling more Coke. But that’s okay. That’s their prerogative. Philip Morris isn’t in the business of making people healthier either. But is the government in that business?

So let’s make it a business question. Where should the government allocate its resources—in facilitating growth of capital, or in hindering growth slightly to (maybe) improve the health of its people? Will government protection of the profitability and financial health of America’s largest food producers and processers—gainful employers to boot—deliver more long-term value to the nation, its GDP and its citizens than government enforcement of an immediate, obnoxious, necessary, burdensome, moral imperative to eat better?

I don’t know. What do you think?

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