Bans and Bans on Bans

On NPR this morning, one commentator, speaking about the recent decision by a federal judge to overturn Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sugary drinks, claimed that “New Yorkers [were] smart enough” to make their own decisions on food consumption.

Sure – most of us are. But the rationale behind the ban had nothing to do with believing that most citizens are stupid. Instead, the point of legislation is that, smart or not, the average citizen is up against two rather burly foes when deciding what to eat or drink: millenia of evolution and precision-engineered snacks and advertising.

To the first point: plenty of studies show that our bodies are engineered to take in the most efficient sources of calories when available. According to authors Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, both humans and animals recognize fatty and sugary foods as calorie-dense. Under periods of stress, we’re even more likely to indulge, as our brains prepare our bodies for energy-burning fight or flight responses. In short, people under stress (and who isn’t?) have an uphill battle to reject high-calorie foods.

As to the second point, Michael Moss writes an excellent article on the science of food engineering, focusing on elements such as the so-called “bliss point,” the exact balance of ingredients that encourages a consumer to eat more. The explicit goal of much food science is to fulfill the promise of Pringles: once you pop, you really can’t stop.

Which isn’t to say that the Bloomberg ban, as written, was good law. But it’s not fair either to expose a population to unfettered exercises by industry to further corral them into an unhealthy lifestyle.

Which is, oddly, exactly what Mississippi is doing. Though supporters of the “Anti-Bloomberg” bill sell it as a blow for freedom, in reality, the bill is merely pro-food industry. It not only prevents local governments from enacting size bans, but also prevents transparency laws that require calorie counts on menus. How allowing industry to disguise the health impact of its food is supposed to represent consumer freedom is a mystery to me.

The fact is, obesity is a growing problem, and lawmakers who pass Mississippi-style bills designed to give manufacturers the greatest possible leeway in disguising the impact of processed food are doing their constituents a great disservice. In effect, the medical industry is subsidizing the food industry: the profits that food industry makes from junk food should be used to pay for the costs to society that junk food creates. Obesity results in higher medical costs, lowered productivity, reduced quality of life, and higher rates of other complications. Ultimately, we’ll have to find a balance between public health needs (and their growing cost to society at large) and the preferences of businesses and consumers. Otherwise, there’s a lot more at stake than merely…um, steak.

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