For Some, It’s an Idea Whose Time Has Come
BY STEWART TRUELSEN
Picture yourself in the future, the not too distant future, on a bright summer day. You are grilling hot dogs at a picnic with your family in a park. You pay little attention to the drone flying overhead. It’s probably a UPS or FedEx drone making a package delivery. But it’s not. It’s the food police and they are monitoring the items you brought to the picnic. The hot dogs, buns, potato chips and soda pop exceed your family’s maximum caloric allowance for the day. Besides, non-diet soda pop has been completely outlawed because it contains sweetener. You are in trouble with the food police.
If that Orwellian view of the future sends chills down your spine maybe it should, because it is not so far-fetched. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, already tried to limit the sales of soft drinks. Some said he did it to enhance his image as he left office. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work. The Supreme Court of New York blocked his efforts, calling the limits on soft drinks “arbitrary and capricious.”
The mayor vowed to appeal the ruling. He did, and he lost again. Had the rules taken effect, they would have limited the size of sugary drinks to 16 oz. at restaurants, theaters and food carts. What’s interesting to note is what the first court said about the sugar rule.
Justice Milton A. Tingling wrote that the Bloomberg administration had interpreted its health board’s powers broadly enough to “create an administrative Leviathan” that could enact any rules “limited only by its own imagination.”
The defeat in New York hasn’t stopped other advocates of similar regulations. Deborah Cohen, a senior natural scientist with the Rand Corporation, believes we need regulations to keep Americans from overeating. She dismisses many of the causes of obesity: genetic predisposition, lack of self-control, lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, a sedentary lifestyle and the need for better education about diet and nutrition. To her, these are myths or misunderstandings. Writing in the Washington Post, she said, “Education can help, but what is really needed is regulation.”
Something like this was already tried with alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. It was called Prohibition and it was a massive failure constructed by reformers and do-gooders who saw no problem imposing their particular values on society as a whole and regulating human behavior according to those values. Do we want bootleggers baking sugar cookies and peddling soft drinks a century later? No, probably not. Furthermore, when will we do away with the adolescent reaction that just because an idea may have merit (healthy eating) we should make laws and so doing create a new bureaucracy to enforce those laws, when the self-righteous reformers pushing such laws have the right and ability to preach their message to their hearts’ content, and endeavor to shape human conduct according to their values without involving police powers?
Farmers, who already face more than their share of regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state agencies, would not be exempt from obesity regulations. The rules would ripple up and down the food chain. For farmers and ranchers, there would be rules affecting the crops they grow and the meat and milk they market. Because that is, indeed, how bureaucracies work, all the while foisting unproductive dependants upon taxpayers resulting from the staffing, salaries, and benefits that come with public sector payrolls.
The food police we all had to deal with growing up were mom and dad. We don’t need to turn more parenting over to government. There are many ways of attacking obesity without trying to outlaw it. Farmers and ranchers are entirely supportive of healthy lifestyles, and the right of the public to choose from the variety and abundance of nutritious foods.
Stewart Truelsen, a food and agriculture freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.