By: J. Justin Wilson
Newspaper: The Star-Ledger
Few Americans — 24 percent, according to a Rasmussen poll — support New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of large sodas at ball games, movie theaters and restaurants. Rightly, the ban strikes many as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal choice. Now, the city’s Board of Health will consider expanding this overreach to milk-based drinks and movie popcorn.
The soda ban, however, relies on a flawed premise: that personal weight is an issue of public health.
Thanks to the nation’s self-anointed health czars and fat-fighters, public health has gone from protecting the general population from hidden dangers to protecting us from ourselves. Traditionally, the focus was on battling communicable diseases and the like — ensuring that the water supply was untainted, the food supply was clean and the full complement of vaccines was being promoted.
Certainly, with ever-present possibilities of a salmonella or E. coli outbreak, public health still has a major role in public policy. But today’s public health activists think the traditional approach isn’t good enough.
“We’re simply forcing you to understand,” Bloomberg says. Yet people already understand — New York City imposed mandatory calorie labels at restaurants in 2008. While consumers can’t test their own spinach for E. coli, they certainly have enough information to determine their own diets. It doesn’t take a doctorate in nutrition to make good choices.
In fact, subsequent studies found that, after Bloomberg’s calorie-labeling initiative, people’s eating habits didn’t appreciably change. Researchers compared diners’ decisions in New York City (with menu labeling) and New Jersey (without labeling) and found the initiative had no effect.
That kind of informed choice-making is what really infuriates the public health community, which apparently thinks its job is to make sure everybody meets their standard of health.
Despite the hype, obesity is about private, not public, health — because whether a person is fat has no health effect on somebody else. There’s no such thing as second-hand obesity. And despite obesity being dubbed an “epidemic,” it’s not. That would require added weight to be contagious, like smallpox.
Public health activists use such distorting rhetoric because they’re so concerned about the costs obesity is said to impose on others. But if money is the deciding factor, why shouldn’t the government set the speed limit to 5 mph? Auto accidents cost society billions.
Fortunately, people think the benefits of driving fast on highways are worth it. Maybe a better solution is to let people assume the costs of their personal decisions.
Ultimately, trying to make people thin on a population-wide scale is futile. There are simply too many lifestyle choices. A recent study by Lehigh University and Middle Tennessee State University professors found 97 percent of the factors contributing to obesity are individual, personal dynamics.
As for more restrictive policies, some like sugary drink taxes have indeed been recently proposed. Research shows they’re equally impotent. A 2010 study from Duke-Singapore National University determined that a significant 40 percent surcharge on soda would only reduce the average person’s daily energy intake by a measly 12 calories, equivalent to walking for a few minutes.
It’s one thing for public health authorities to monitor and mitigate disease outbreak on a large scale.
But obesity is different. Weight gain is simply eating more calories than you burn off.
There’s no one cause, but rather an overall lifestyle. With the ubiquity of office jobs, labor-saving devices and driving, it’s easier than ever to be less active.
But because weight is an matter of individual lifestyle, it’s best dealt with privately.
The first American Public Health Association meeting in 1873 dealt with vaccinations, cholera, yellow fever, local sanitation laws and water supplies.
Now, the group has jumped onboard the “new” public health, advocating for soda taxes and food advertisement restrictions.
In their never-ending quest to get Americans to eat more apples, the public health community has fallen far from the tree.