Twelve years ago, R.J. Reynolds took to the nation’s newspapers to combat proposed tax increases on tobacco.
“Today it’s cigarettes,” the ad said. “Will high-fat foods be next?”
At the time, tobacco companies were accused of fear-mongering. It was absurd, anti-smoking crusaders claimed, to suggest that their efforts would lead to attacks on tacos and cheese fries.
R.J. Reynolds and the tobacco industry lost the battle against sin taxes—all 50 states now levy a hefty excise on cigarettes. Rhode Island smokers pay an additional $2.46 per pack. New Jersey smokers pay an extra $2.40. That is on top of the $0.37 per-pack federal tax on cigarettes.
The spirit of anti-smoking paternalism extends far beyond the tax code. Remember when private property owners could allow their guests to smoke? The vast majority of restaurants, bars and even workplaces are privately owned, and can’t hold employees or customers against their will. Many of them responded to market pressures by voluntarily banning smoking. But beginning in 1998, when California issued the first statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, the decision has been taken out of their hands. Today, there are 35 states with some form of smoking ban on the books. By New Year’s, smoking in bars, pubs, and nightclubs will be illegal in 13 states plus the District of Columbia.
In the fight against fatty foods, the battle has already surpassed the dire warnings of R.J. Reynolds. Rather than impose a Twinkie tax—which was first popularized by Yale University’s Kelly Brownell in a 1994 New York Times op-ed—local governments have outright banned unhealthy foods. California, Connecticut, and several local districts have banned soda sales in their schools. Fearing lawsuits, the country’s top three soft-drink companies will start removing sweetened drinks like Coke and iced teas from school cafeterias and vending machines this fall.
Childhood obesity is certainly a problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 16 percent of American children between 12 and 19 were obese in 2002, compared to 6.1 percent in 1974. What was once known as adult-onset diabetes is now affecting children, and physical activity has plummeted in all age groups.
But the regime of compulsory nutrition is rapidly encroaching on grown-ups, too. Earlier this month, New York became the first U.S. city to mandate the elimination of trans fats from all city restaurants. So much for Twinkies, Tastykakes, and Krispy Kremes. Other cities are expected to follow suit. As Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell explained, “trans fat is a silent poison. It’s killing people in the city of Cleveland.” Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston are also considering trans fat bans.
Many advocates of such bans share a general belief in government-knows-best social engineering. People are stupid, the theory goes, and are easily manipulated into consuming whatever’s on the menu at Jim-Bob’s local barbeque. Therefore, the government has a responsibility to discourage—or even prohibit—unhealthy behavior. As a result, responsible New Yorkers will no longer be able to buy a greasy cannoli on Mulberry Street.
Like smoking, the choice to eat high-calorie foods might not always be prudent. But government prohibition of that choice is a remarkable confiscation of freedom. We have crossed the line from banning things that are unsafe to banning things that are unhealthy.
For other public health advocates, however, the justification for such measures is rooted in public health expenditures. Unhealthy diets, they point out, contribute to obesity, and obesity imposes higher medical costs on everyone.
According to a 2003 study published in Health Affairs, one of the nation’s leading health policy journals, healthcare costs associated with excessive weight total more than $90 billion each year, of which half is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid. It is America’s poorest citizens who are the fattest, and taxpayers are footing the bills.
But the logic that shared healthcare expenditures justify the confiscation of personal responsibility brushes aside the fact that a cost is only imposed on taxpayers if the government picks up the bill. Further, it is a terrifyingly slippery slope. So many different behaviors affect healthcare that eventually, in the interest of cutting costs, the government will seek to micromanage each individual’s personal decisions. No longer will one be able to eat junk food, have unprotected sex, sleep less than six hours each night, or skip flossing.
If the government is responsible for making Americans lose weight, for example, why not mandate exercise? Is such a policy really any different from mandating what foods we can and can’t eat?
It turns out the smoking and obesity issues are linked, after all: In October 2002, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that declines in smoking have contributed to America’s expanding waistlines. Cigarettes were originally marketed to women as, in part, an appetite suppressant—and quitting still means gaining weight in most cases.
So perhaps there’s a way to make both sides of the obesity debate happy: If we start giving cigarettes away for free, we’ll cut public health expenditures and reduce obesity.
But then again, where would you smoke?