WASHINGTON – New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban was struck down in July, but other regulations meant to improve food safety and curb obesity still persist, much to the discontent of those that deem such actions as misguided overreach from the government’s “food police.”
The problem with many healthy-eating initiatives is that they pose a potential encroachment on the freedom of Americans, said Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. As examples of this intrusion, he pointed out a Chicago public school that prohibited parents from packing their child’s lunch because school personnel could not monitor the meals. He also referred to a Harvard public health study that suggested obese children be removed from their parents.
Olson, during a panel at the Heritage Foundation focused on government interventions in the dietary choices of Americans, added that the threat from the Obama administration is not from the first lady’s “Let’s Move” health initiative to encourage children to stay active and eat healthy food.
“Conservatives are distracted by the Michelle Obama half of the equation, where most of what she has done is pretty innocuous actually,” he said. “We’re not paying attention when President Obama named as head of the Centers for Disease Control none other than Thomas Frieden, Bloomberg’s health czar in New York. That’s a much greater tipping of his hand than anything Michelle Obama has done.”
Frieden was appointed to the post in 2009, following a seven-year stint as New York City Health Department commissioner through Bloomberg’s first two terms, pushing anti-trans fat and anti-smoking proposals during his tenure.
Olson said the Obama administration is funneling massive grants to localities that are willing to do things like “propagandize against salt and fat” and for outright lobbying to “stir up these local initiatives to have the town ban happy meals or have the town ban the locations of a fast food restaurant through zoning.”
“You thought these things were springing up because someone was interested in them. The fact is, the federal government, your money, has been paying for those things to spring up everywhere,” Olson said. “I don’t know whether we can defund Obamacare in general. But the fact is Obamacare has a slush fund, which is going to be throwing off $2 million often insulated from the appropriations process in Congress in order to do health interventions including propaganda and much else. I hope they can at least defund that part of it.”
Traditionally, public health has focused on battling communicable diseases to ensure the well-being of the American people by doing things like ensuring that the water supply is clean, monitoring food supply safety, and promoting vaccination.
If the old public health paradigm was about protecting Americans from things beyond their control, the new paradigm is about protecting Americans from themselves, said J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.
“The trouble with the new public health paradigm…is that it’s inherently paternalistic but also that’s impossible to take into account that we all have different risk tolerances,” he said.
Having all but eliminated the dangers of tainted foods and other major communicable diseases, government bureaucrats have redefined themselves and shifted their focus from safety to nutrition, Wilson said.
“Public health has been very, very good. It’s a $3 billion industry,” Wilson said. “But they were way too effective, they have pension funds and they have careers they want to make, and they recognize that the mission creep was to change what was once considered public health and switch it to private health. That you can go up the chain a little bit more and say ‘what we really need to do is protect people from themselves because that’s where our problems are occurring right now.’ They’re looking at what’s slowing the increase in life expectancy and they recognize now it’s individual bad behavior.”
The idea behind “sin taxes,” also known as Pigouvian taxes to economists, is that you place a tax on a product hoping that it will produce two benefits: reduce consumption of the product and increase tax revenue. The money that the government reaps from those that choose to continue using the product can go towards programs that reduce consumption of such product.
“It becomes a self-defunding tax program, where people increasingly stop using the product,” Wilson said.
The problem with “sin taxes,” however, is that many states do not use revenues for the intended purpose. Currently, only one state uses all revenues from tobacco taxes to finance anti-smoking efforts, Wilson said. According to a 2012 report, states have spent less on tobacco prevention over the past two years since the 1998 tobacco settlement, despite record high revenues from tobacco taxes and settlement money.
In particular, soda taxes are not an effective tool to combat obesity because soda is only a small part of a person’s daily caloric intake, Wilson said. Many states, such as California and Vermont, have looked into imposing a penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks.
Under the Affordable Care Act, food chains with 20 or more locations – including restaurants, fast-food outlets, bakeries, and coffee shops – must disclose calories on menus and menu boards. Mandatory menu labeling would increase costs for many restaurants affected by the law, said Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal.
He said that many of these food regulations have unintended consequences. For example, Utah’s “Zion Curtain,” a law forbidding bartenders in restaurants from pouring alcoholic drinks in front of their patrons in order to discourage excessive alcohol consumption, has resulted in more Utah restaurants converting to bars.
Linnekin noted there is some deregulation happening, too, though at a much slower pace. More than 40 states have passed “cottage food laws,” which allow small entrepreneurs to prepare low-risk food in their homes and sell them to the public.
Nita Ghei, a policy research editor at the Mercatus Center, said she is skeptical that government can do much to curtail obesity because the problem is that obesity is a byproduct of the success of both the free market and big government.
“Any kind of regulatory interventions that seek to modify behavior are just not going to be successful to end obesity,” Ghei said, pointing to a massive U.S. weight-loss industry available to overweight Americans.
“If you are obese and you want to lose weight, there are lots and lots of options out there,” she added. “Regulations are not really going to change anything. They’re just going to raise costs.”