Why New York City Gets it Wrong on Soda

Yesterday, I did an article commending Governor Andrew Cuomo for attempting to liberalize New York’s drug policy. In New York City, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is fully on board for a local ban on the sale of supersize sodas and other sugary drinks. Ironically, Bloomberg is actually for Cuomo’s new drug policy. Now, to be clear, I like Bloomberg. He’s been strongly supportive of equal rights for gays and lesbians. But on this issue, his policy is misguided. I have had people ask me what is so bad about banning unhealthy food. The answer is that people must stop seeing this issue as simply one about what the proper diet is. The law in New York City goes beyond that and presents us with a fundamental question: should individuals be permitted to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink, or should our diets be controlled by a nanny state? And if a government can literally forbid you from drinking too much soda, what can’t it do? I have heard the argument that poor people are relying on fast food because there is nothing else affordable for them to consume. This, however, is a problem of poverty and is not the fault of the fast food companies. We need aggressive, creative methods for ensuring that those who are born into poverty do not have to remain in poverty their entire lives. Part of this will come from improving the education system, through a combination of better public schools and a strong voucher program. Poverty is often linked with race, and continued affirmative action, in addition to its other benefits, may mean more chance of success for underprivileged African Americans, as well as for Native Americans. But in general, fighting poverty should not involve more government. Well intentioned though it was, the War on Poverty proved to be a failure, with massive federal spending and economic programs failing to truly alter socio-economic inequality. As the late, great Paul Tsongas once said, “If anyone thinks the words government and efficiency belong in the same sentence, we have counseling available.” But one thing we must not do to help the poor is to forcibly regulate people’s diets. This is a case in which the cure is worse than the disease. Banning oversized sodas is a step toward a totalitarian Communist state, because as I have already stated, once government controls something as personal as soda intake, it can control anything. And indeed in such a state, we might have no poverty or economic inequality, and everyone could have a perfect diet. All we would be asked to give up would be our legal rights as individuals. That didn’t work out so well in Cuba. To my mind, the plan to regulate soda is a logical consequence of the idea put into practice over the past few decades that citizens have a right to taxpayer-funded health care. Is it any surprise that Mayor Bloomberg, in a 2009 New York Daily News article, actually argued that the health care reform bill being debated at the time did not go far enough? Once we establish a principle that taxpayers should foot the bill for health care, it is only a matter of time before government begins to try and control people’s lifestyles, since certain behaviors lead to higher health care costs. In essence, people become treated like financially dependent children, not adults with appropriate rights and responsibilities. Some people have argued that this ban is needed to protect children. This claim, no pun intended, does not hold water. First of all, the ban applies to adults as well as children. Second, it amounts to government usurping the role of parents. Is it smart for a child to drink a supersize soda? No, although moderate amounts of soda have not been shown to hurt children. However, diet is an area in which responsibility falls to the child’s parents. The truth is that there are many parental decisions that, while harmful to children, are not illegal. Almost any psychologist will tell you that spending only a small amount of time with your kids can have a myriad of negative effects. Should we fine parents who don’t spend enough time with their children? For all the people in New York City who voted to ban supersize soft drinks, I wonder: if it’s such a great idea for government to micromanage people’s lifestyles, why shouldn’t we hire government officials, nannies if you will, who can come into our houses and force us to eat exactly the right amount of portions of food with a perfectly balanced diet. Furthermore, should we be required to exercise the amount recommended by medical professionals? I doubt a nanny state would look so appealing then. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. I’m meeting a friend across town for dinner. We’re having pizza. And I’m going to have something sweet for dessert later on. And those are my decisions to make, not the government’s.

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