By: J. Justin Wilson
California has spent the better half of the last century branding itself as the health and fitness capital of the United States. From “California Cuisine” to Muscle Beach, if you’re sporting a spare tire, you might not enjoy the summer sun that has attracted people to the Golden State since the gold ran out. The results are striking: California has one of the lowest rates of obesity of all the states.
Most Californians make personally responsible health decisions daily and government statistics back this up. However, sometimes that desire for optimal health can backfire. On a personal level, that might just be a bad fad diet that leads to an illness or an overzealous exercise regimen leading to an injury. And sometimes Sacramento crosses the line from reasonable health promotion to overstretched mandates.
Consider a new proposal by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier that would enable the state Department of Health to restrict the sale of consumer products if bureaucrats decide they contribute to chronic disease.
The history of similar mandates shows that the state results can be far from sunny. Today, almost everything sold in the state, from food products to Christmas lights to fishing rods, carries a warning against “chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer.” They’re on so many items that many average consumers simply blow them off. It has made California the “state that cried ‘cancer.’”
Protecting drinking water from toxic chemicals was the original goal of Prop. 65, the 1986 ballot measure that created the warnings. The measure was entitled the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.” However, the law had two critical flaws: a lawsuit-mongering “bounty hunter” provision and a poorly crafted limiting principle. The result is a deluge of meaningless warnings on safe consumer products and a barrage of frivolous but costly lawsuits.
DeSaulnier’s new proposal may not create a feeding frenzy for legal sharks, but it too lacks a limiting principle. Prop. 65 warnings must be listed even at very low levels of exposure that probably cause no harm on any item that contains a listed chemical. DeSaulnier’s bill would allow the state to restrict the sale of any consumer product that it finds contributes to a “public health epidemic” if a manufacturer-funded “impact reduction” wasn’t effective.
That mandate is so broad that presumably anything, from California cheese to Napa Valley wines to labor-saving products like dishwashers, could face regulation under this latest Sacramento scheme in the name of fighting obesity. But there’s no evidence that this concoction will actually do this.
Weight gain occurs when calories taken in (from food or drink) exceed calories burned through activity. But practically anything “could” contribute to weight gain. Bureaucrats could pick on candy or soft drinks or beer. But a sedentary lifestyle also affects obesity — so should we effectively ban couches, PlayStations and even remotes?
Even if the bill didn’t result in a bunch of petty prohibitions, the “impact reduction” efforts would result in higher consumer prices, effectively placing a tax on all consumers. With Californians struggling with an unemployment rate of 9 percent, the last thing consumers need to see are higher prices thanks to unnecessary mandates.
Sacramento politicians have forgotten how California became one of the healthiest states: Its citizens chose to be healthier. According to Centers for Disease Control data, Californians are in the top five states when it comes to meeting aerobic exercise recommendations and well within the top 10 on eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Government didn’t ban cheeseburgers to cause that. People employed personal responsibility and chose to do it.
In the struggle between taking personal responsibility for health and using the blunt instrument of government mandates to try to make people healthier, California’s experience is informative. Personal responsibility leads to almost nation-leading results. Government mandates lead to lawsuits and unnecessary expense.