Have you heard the proposal in California and several other states to tax soft drinks in order to make people lose weight? Or the one to ban toys in fast-food kids' meals in order to "fight childhood obesity"?
Such heavy-handed measures may sound unappetizing, but it's all brought to you in the name of "public health." This, however, isn't your mother's idea of public health.
Traditionally, public health has focused on battling communicable diseases to ensure the well-being of the masses. Public health practitioners protected us from unseen dangers posed by others. This includes ensuring that the water supply is clean, monitoring food supply safety and promoting vaccines.
These are all proper roles of government. And they worked. Smallpox, measles, and polio – all once serious concerns – are nearly eradicated in the U.S. Annual cases of diphtheria went from 100,000-200,000 in the 1920s to near nil today.
If the "old" public health paradigm was about protecting us from things beyond our practical control, the "new" public health paradigm is about protecting us from ourselves.
Consider the American Public Health Association. Its first meeting in 1873 dealt with vaccinations, cholera, yellow fever, local sanitation laws and water supplies. Its mission was "the advancement of sanitary science, and the promotion of organizations and measures for the practical application of public hygiene."
Now, this organization advocates taxing soft drinks to reduce obesity, reducing salt in foods, and instituting bans on certain food advertisements.
Disease prevention has always been integral to public health. But activists are now twisting public health by applying the words "disease" and "epidemic" to things most Americans consider choices, like food and beverages.
They claim that obesity is "socially" contagious. Their subsequent leap to obesity "prevention" measures seeks to control what we eat and drink and nudge us in the "right" direction by forcing us to diet.
Recently these measures have included proposed bans on salt and other ingredients as well as taxes targeted at soda, fruit juice, chocolate milk, chips, and cookies, while there are no credible scientific studies showing that taxes will reduce weight. The justification cited by public health activists is that these intrusions will reduce obesity and save the government money spent on treating conditions that attribute to being obese.
(This is a great reason why we shouldn't have a single-payer health care system and what other controls such a system would "justify"!)
Obesity is a matter of eating too many calories without burning them off through physical activity. All food has calories. And, unlike a real disease, there's no virus or bacteria that causes obesity.
Here's the point: Is it your right to be unhealthy? Or, conversely, is it the proper role of the government to force you to make healthy choices?
If the government has a broad "public health" mandate, there's no telling to what extent it can force people to change their behavior in order to be healthier, save money and avoid injury. Would all steak knives be a little duller? (Accidental cuts cost $16 billion a year.) There also might be a ban on playgrounds (recreational equipment injuries "cost" $1.2 billion a year). Perhaps that ban should extend to all recess – treating children for running into objects "costs" $2.2 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the end, maybe we would all live in a Nerf world, walking around with knee pads, helmets, and foam armor to protect ourselves – from ourselves. Speed limits would be set at 15 mph nationwide to prevent fatal crashes.
We can expect personal responsibility, but we have no right to impose it upon people. Just as "public safety" doesn't allow police to violate individual rights, "public health" doesn't allow do-gooder bureaucrats or politicians to make choices for us.
Here's a thought: Let each person choose how he or she wishes to live. We should bear the consequences (if any) of our free choices, and our neighbors shouldn't pay for them.
Wilson is the Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.