Saturday, February 16, 2013

This is not the fight they (want to) believe it is

[Now that I’m blogging again, I’ve started going through pieces I wrote - or started and let languish - while I wasn’t blogging. This one is about a year and a half old but not much seems to have changed in this area.]

The New York Times has up an opinion piece entitled “How Do You Put a Nation on a Diet?”. I read it with the overwhelming sense of discouragement I always feel when reading about attempts to wipe out obesity in the country and, I assume, eventually the world. Why? Because of writing like this:

The institute says that a major cut in obesity rates will require multiple strategies on a population-wide scale. This will be even more challenging than the fight against smoking. But there isn’t any choice if we want to protect the public’s health, the strength of the economy and the government budget.

Those who are proposing government intervention and large societal changes to fight obesity think they are re-fighting the largely successful war against cigarettes. They’re wrong. What they are re-fighting is the utterly futile battle we now refer to simply as “Prohibition”.


E Hines said...

They're also arguing from two false premises: that it's the government's role to protect the "public's health" and that the government budget needs protecting.

Just as the justification for government's role in prohibition proceeded from false premises.

Eric Hines

Elise said...

Well, none of that really speaks to my point especially since I wasn't speaking of government actions alone. I was thinking at least as much of the Carrie Nation's of the food prohibition movement. However ...

I think what they're arguing is that the government budget needs protecting from what they believe will be the crushing cost of providing health care for those who are overweight. That is, they are arguing for keeping government spending down.

The argument about public health is twistier. Once the government is using my money to pay for others' health care, I am perfectly open to the argument that I (in the form of the government) should get a say in whether and how they take care of themselves. The original sin here is not thinking the government has a right to tell people what to eat but having the government use my money to fund other people's health care.

More basically, I do think the government has a role to play in protecting public health. For me, this is largely in the context of communicable diseases (which I do not think overweight is). But certainly I support the government, for example, refusing to admit immigrants with communicable diseases. I support the CDC trying to stay on top of epidemics. I support laws against throwing raw sewage in the street or the river.

I believe there is a role for government at all levels in protecting the public's health. But that role is in protecting us from each other, not from ourselves. Which leads us back to the issue of using my money to pay for other people's health care.