New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed a ban on sugary beverages that would “impose a 16-ounce limit on the size of sweetened drinks sold at restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and street carts” (www.USAtoday.com, Retrieved 5/31/12). The Mayor’s goal is to help curb obesity by forcing people to make more responsible food purchases. There are a number of problems with the Mayor’s proposed solution. First, he is forgetting one of the cardinal rules of lawmaking, which is that you cannot legislate morals and values. He is also forgetting about the outcomes of previous attempts to legislate certain values. Didn’t forced integration teach us anything? When you force people to do something they do not want to do, and that they are not ready to do, they will likely find a way to circumvent your desires, and, or, you will end up spending more money to mitigate the damage caused by their dissenting behavior. How much did it cost to secure the Little Rock Nine safe entry into that school? How much did it cost to bring in the National Guard?
He is also forgetting that good public policy considers the implementability of legislation. How exactly would this ban be enforced? Could a person buy more than one 16-ounce drink? Can a mother give her children money to each purchase a 16-ounce drink, and then consume all of the drinks herself? Can a person purchase a 16-ounce sugary beverage from multiple stores and then consume all of the beverages? What about people who do consume sugary beverages in a manner that is considered to be responsible? What about those people who drink half of a 20-ounce beverage at one point during the day, and the other half later on in the day or week? Is it fair to curb the revenue of merchants, manufacturers and distributors because some consumers are poor decision-makers? What if the revenue that some merchants get from selling sugary beverages is used to support a local school’s math and science program? Should the math and science program suffer because the merchant’s sales will suffer?
Let the market, which is controlled by people’s decision-making, correct itself. A better solution would therefore be to give people an incentive to make better decisions. What about offering a tax credit to people who are deemed to be within a certain range of health, since it costs the government less to take care of them? The health ranges could take race, ethnicity, medical conditions, bone structure, and other factors into account, but at least there would be an established standard and incentive. There could even be a tax credit for obese people who can prove that their health has improved or that they are making an effort to improve their health. What about a tax credit for weight loss, for people who are determined to need to lose weight?
And yes, there is a such thing as people “needing” to lose weight, which brings me to my next point. We’re having this discussion because we live in a society that is afraid to make distinctions between “right” and “wrong.” We live in a society that is more concerned about ego than ethics. We’re more concerned about making people comfortable than we are about correcting people. In fact, correcting people to some is seen as being rude. Sometimes, people who attempt to correct dysfunction are seen as lacking cultural competence, and as being insensitive. We live in a society that pretends like there is no such thing as right and wrong—even when some circumstances clearly delineate such a distinction. We live in a society where a burglar can sue a homeowner for damages she or he sustained while attempting to rob the home. Why? Because some lawyer will take the case and argue that the burglar was actually surveying his or her prospective neighborhood and trying to determine if the neighborhood is safe—and win! We allow for “cop-outs” and excuses that perpetuate dysfunction, and then when it gets to be too much, we try to force people who have never before had to do anything “right,” to change. It’s like the parent who gives his chronologically grown child a 30-day eviction notice after having allowed the child to live without any responsibility for so long.
The discussion concerning how to most effectively address obesity, then, is really about culture.
This debate isn’t even about money, because the market will change when people’s decision-making changes. Merchants will stop selling ounces of sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces, when people stop buying them. And people will stop buying them when they determine for themselves that it isn’t a good idea to do so—or they will drink half of the beverage now and the other half later.
People change when they have to—when they know they will not get a trophy, ribbon or certificate, unless they work just as hard as everybody else who has earned one. We can discuss why some people are not motivated to work as hard as others later. Did we have this problem before we started handing out trophies to people just for participating? I imagine that we didn’t, because in order to win before, you had to be “in shape.”
Shakesha Coleman has completed graduate work in public policy, education and social work. She writes for the education section of Examiner.com.